March/April 2010

The 'emerged' skill crisis …

By Dr. Ken Ryan

Editor's Note: Dr. Ken Ryan is an education professional passionate about giving people the education and know-how to improve manufacturing comments on the issues in North America. This is one perspective, and InTech is interested in perspectives from other parts of the world with similar issues.

We used to speak about an "emerging" skill shortage in this country as much as we used to talk about the "potential" financial crisis.

Well, they both happened!

Not only is the skill shortage knocking on our front doors, it is now residing in our living rooms as we permanently rearrange our furniture.

There are two principle reasons for this:

  1. We have duped ourselves into believing we can build a sustainable economy without the durable manufacturing activities that characterize those nations threatening to eclipse us.
  2. We face not only an aging of the skilled workforce but a collateral erosion of the education assets required to replenish the supply.

Reversal of the first problem demands a steeling of the collective social will that may be beyond the American public's attention span. In this case, "Resistance is futile!" We may as well sit down, collect our government checks, and wait for the end; however, I believe it is still (barely) within our power to reestablish the preeminence of manufacturing in our society. Given this resolve, we must point out why we are in this predicament and then focus on solving problem number two.

First, in a self-absorbed focus on academic purity, pensions, and seniority, we educators have participated in the isolation and politicization of the American education system and taken our collective eye off the prize of service to the next generation.

Next, in pursuit of optimized bottom lines for its shareholders, industry has commoditized and devalued skilled employees while simultaneously abdicating its social contract for the education of its most precious resource, its future workforce.

Now both parties decry the inability of the government to adequately fund the education system each abandoned in their rush to self aggrandizement.

What can post-secondary education do? (Get real …)

  • Invite dedicated informed industry stakeholders onto curriculum advisory committees. Listen to them, but listen harder.
  • Throw away your laminated lesson plans. Just because it was the right thing to teach yesterday, does not mean it is relevant today.
  • Get involved with industry standards committees.
  • Get out of the tower and get involved in current industry trends. Ask the following questions: What is industry doing? What do they need from us? How do we deliver?
  • Quit making every student so specialized, limiting their value to employers.
  • Get more practical and less theoretical. There must be a balance between the two.
  • Start teaching technicians across the technical spectrum (e.g., mechatronics).
  • Take over the technical training responsibilities abandoned by the secondary education system.

What can industry do? Invest in the future workforce that will make you successful.

  • Stop outsourcing.
  • Get involved in curriculum advisory committees at your local technical/community college or university.
  • Open your facility to educators for industry co-ops during the summer.
  • Badger your legislators to support education funding for skilled technician training.
  • Quit turning a blind-eye to the closure of hands-on education programs in secondary schools.
  • Start valuing technicians and technologists as much as you value engineers. (We hope.)

Effective technical education and the development of technical people by companies are serious problems that demand serious action. Forming a circular firing squad will not get the job done. This is not a gradual decline into mediocrity we face, but an ever steepening spiral into economic malaise.

We are rapidly approaching the tipping point. The day will come when some national security threat will wake us from our service economy hangover only to find the educational infrastructure needed to support a nimble, technologically-advanced response has fallen into such a state of neglect that it will collapse under the demand of the hour.

As Warren Buffett said: "You never know who's swimming naked until the tide goes out." Regarding the skill shortage, not only are we naked, but the global bully on the beach is threatening to kick sand in our works.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Ken Ryan (kenr@LearnMechatronics.org) is director of the Center for Applied Mechatronics at Alexandria Technical College in Alexandria, Minn.