Manufacturers Looking for Qualified Workers in Wrong Places, Says UMass Survey

Workers at manufacturing plantThe shortage in qualified high-tech manufacturing workers has been highly publicized recently, but researchers at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth have discovered a possible cause for the shortage in Massachusetts: many employers aren’t looking in the right places.

The survey, which was conducted in May and April with 1,350 firms participating, was aimed at quantifying the current struggles of manufacturers in the state. Employment has fallen by almost half in recent decades, from 480,000 in 1990 to around 250,000 today, just in Massachusetts alone.

However, the state’s manufacturing industry employs nearly five times as many people as the biotechnology industry in Massachusetts, and it generates more than $40 billion in economic output, making it essential to the state’s economy.

One of the most frequent complaints from manufacturing firms is that they have trouble finding qualified employees who have the skills to handle high tech or “advanced” manufacturing. Six out of 10 surveyed manufacturers said they planned to increase hiring over the next two years, but one-third of industry representatives reported trouble with finding skilled workers.

Yet the UMass survey found that manufacturers weren’t aiming their recruiting efforts toward younger members of the workforce.

The survey found that 70 percent or more of manufacturers had never turned to vocational schools, community colleges and other programs that train students for jobs in the industry. Sixty-nine percent responded by saying that they had never worked with a community college, 73 percent hadn’t recruited from a comprehensive high school, and 76 percent never connected with a four year university. More than 80 percent of respondents said they had never contacted local workforce investment boards — organizations that support training programs for workers.

Michael Goodman, associate professor of public policy who led the survey, stated that there isn’t so much a labor shortage as there is a disconnect between manufacturers and workforce development in Massachusetts.

Additionally, the schools themselves may not be reaching out to the entire industry, either. Many high schools are now emphasizing college prep over vocational training, something that may contribute to the shortage in highly skilled workers, says Henry Renski, director of the UMass Center for Economic Development.

But if manufacturers want to continue operating, they will have to begin recruiting young graduates. Northwestern University researchers estimated that baby boomer retirements will result in about 100,000 vacancies in manufacturing over the next ten years.

Yet this news is good for most manufacturers: 90 percent of firms surveyed were willing to train new employees with basic skills, and at least 79 percent currently have the resources to do so.