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Apprenticeship Programs Can Close Skills Gap

Chicago Tribune | July 13, 2014

The White House recently announced a $600 million investment in professional apprenticeship programs. The administration hopes to strengthen ties between community colleges and private companies - and equip workers with the skills they need to secure good paying jobs in growing industries. 

This initiative could not come at a better time. Millions of Americans are unemployed. Yet in manufacturing alone, a half million jobs are going unfilled because firms have been unable to find qualified workers. 

The feds can't address our nation's shortage of skilled labor on their own. Private firms - especially those in manufacturing - must also invest in training. Indeed, without workers fluent in the high technology that runs today's factories, manufacturers will not be able to survive. 

Modern manufacturing is more than pulling levers and navigating forklifts throughout a plant. Consider the work flow of, say, an engineer at a facility making chairs. 

In response to a new order, he'll first use advanced math to calculate the amount of steel that needs to be fed into the presser. He'll have to choose the right combination of half a dozen sheet types, each with a different weight, length and thickness. Then he'll operate, monitor and perhaps fix the quarter-million-dollar machine that assembles the chairs. Even a minor mistake can yield major damage - and massive repair expenses. 

This requires an aptitude for math and technology. Ironically, many folks with advanced college degrees would be lost. 

For dozens of other skilled trade positions, including electromechanical maintenance specialists, injection molding technicians, hand welders, press brake operators, pipe fitters and electricians, the typical workday is similarly challenging. 

These workers are rewarded for their efforts and their aptitude. A skilled machinist, for instance, makes about $60,000 a year. Master welders can take home $200,000 annually. 

With the potential for such high pay, why the dearth of skilled manufacturing staff? In part, it's because aspiring workers don't have the opportunity to develop the skills that lead to those lofty paychecks. 

Vocational programs have been slowly dying in American public schools. From 1987 to 2010, the share of students enrolled in at least one technical educaiton course in California dropped from 75 percent to just 29 percent. The Los Angeles Unified School District - with 660,000 students - has eliminated 90 percent of its shop classes. 

Employers used to be able to bring hires up to speed with on-the-job training. But as manufacturing has become more technologically sophisticated, the training needed to master a trade has grown too expensive and time-consuming for private industry to provide. 

Manufacturers already operate on thin profit margins. They can't afford to develop every worker from scratch. 

Fortunately, they don't need to. Throughout the country, many manufacturers, technical schools, and local and state governments have teamed up to help narrow the skills gap. 

Throughout Illinois, employers are teaming up with municipalities to expand vocational training. 

Vocational centers in Tamms, Mount Vernon, Red Bud, Collinsville and Vandalia are teaching high school juniors and seniors the skills they'll need for careers in everything from machining and welding to robotics and culinary arts. And in 2016, a new vocational center will open in Mount Vernon.

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Dick Resch tours the KI manufacturing facility with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and plant manager Stuart Kolb.

In Wisconsin, my company, Green Bay-based KI Furniture, has brought in over 1,000 local students for plant tours and internships. Two of our peers - cheese-maker Sargento and snowblower and lawn tractor manufacturer Ariens - have done much the same. 

There is a common perception that American manufacturing is in decline. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Instead, a shortage of qualified workers is holding American manufacturing back. Our nation's leaders must invest in closing that skills gap. If they do, an American industrial renaissance will follow. 

Dick Resch is CEO of KI Furniture

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