July/August 2012
Workforce Development

Closing the manufacturing skills gap

By Pam Hurt

Manufacturing has evolved far beyond the days of the moving assembly line when thousands of factory workers labored side by side in repetitive motion.

Today, manufacturing is highly technical and requires understanding and proficiency in a wide variety of competencies. However, this demand for highly skilled workers comes at a time when the industry is facing the retirement of a large percentage of its workforce and an incoming generation of workers who lack the skills and technical knowledge needed for U.S. manufacturing. Many manufacturers are seeing an advantage to "reshore" their production back to North America, but they can only do this if they have access to skilled workers.

There are many industry and government organizations working together to ensure that the U.S. has a workforce to support the growing needs of manufacturers. A key component has been the development of the NAM-Endorsed Manufacturing Skills Certification System-a system of stackable credentials applicable to all sectors in the manufacturing industry. These nationally portable, industry-recognized credentials validate the skills and competencies needed to be productive and successful in entry-level positions in any manufacturing environment and can be learned and earned in secondary and postsecondary education.

The founding partners of the NAM-Endorsed Manufacturing Skills Certification System are ACT, the American Welding Society, the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council, the National Institute of Metalworking Skills, and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. SME certifications included in the system are the three Lean Certifications, as well as the Certified Manufacturing Technologist and Certified Manufacturing Engineer. Launched in 2009, the system added another seven credentials in 2011, including the ISA certifications Certified Automation Professional (CAP), Certified Control Systems Technician (CCST), and Certified Industrial Maintenance Mechanics (CIMM.)

The Skills Certification System also serves as a benchmark for standardized assessment of the critical workplace traits and occupational skills an individual needs to operate in the advanced manufacturing workplace. It confirms both technical and non-technical skills, assuring that an individual has both the "book smarts" and the "street smarts" to function in a high-paced manufacturing environment. The result is a professional technical manufacturing workforce with valuable industry credentials, making companies more innovative, more competitive, and more marketable.

In June 2011, President Obama announced that the Skills Certification System was the national talent solution for closing the skills gap in manufacturing. In addition to supporting and advancing the Certification System, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) Education Foundation encourages youth to get involved in manufacturing technologies through STEM-related activities in the K-12 levels. They award more than $500,000 in scholarships and fund grants to support manufacturing education curriculum. The recently-launched PRIME (Partnership Response in Manufacturing Education) connects local industry to exemplary manufacturing education programs at the high school level.

SME supports manufacturing professionals on an individual basis and through corporate programs, and members meet other professionals through local chapters, technical communities-such as the Automated Manufacturing & Assembly Community-and virtual touch points. They gain the knowledge they need through the Society's deep resources of industry expertise, publications, and online resources. SME members also grow as professionals through volunteer activities and leadership training. Additionally, SME offers flexible training options that range from instructor-led workshops and webinars, 24/7 online courses through Tooling U, and certifications based on industry-developed standards.

The increasing rate of technological change demands that workers constantly update their skills and knowledge and build a workforce for the future. As a manufacturing practitioner, there are many things you can do to both improve your marketability and support the manufacturing industry in your area:

  • Examine your own capabilities. What skills are you lacking? Determine if certification is a way to evaluate your capabilities. Put a continuous improvement plan in place for yourself.
  • Speak proudly of your profession to the schools your children attend, the politicians supporting you locally, and the general public. Share with them the importance of a manufacturing economy, and that the industry is a good career choice. It is not about repetitive assembly, but high-value technical positions working in a clean, progressive environment.
  • Discuss the value of innovation and that it only occurs when there is a manufacturing process to support it.
  • Think "green" in every aspect of our manufacturing processes. Let us leave the industry in a better situation than when we started our careers.

With all of us working together, we can keep manufacturing strong so that it can be the foundation of a successful U.S. economy.


Pam Hurt (phurt@sme.org) is the SME Industry Manager for Workforce Development and maintains communication about SME resources, products, and services. She is co-chair of the Automation Week 2013 Student Program.