What is the outlook for our manufacturing workforce?

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Published: July 30,2007

Decades ago, the Deep South earned a reputation for offering a cheap, abundant and hard-working labor force. Manufacturers swarmed here to take advantage of the cheap labor. Those jobs were physically demanding and simple to perform, requiring nothing more than a little on-the-job training.

The situation has changed drastically and will continue to change even more with each passing year. We must adjust to these changes if we are to stay in the game.

When your claim to fame is cheap labor and someone else comes along and offers cheaper labor, you’re in a world of hurt. That is the situation Mississippi manufacturing finds itself in right now. Globalization has made it possible to offshore labor-intensive manufacturing processes to countries with labor costs substantially below our legal minimum wage.

Where are we?

Earlier this year, the Mississippi Manufacturers Association (MMA) published the results of their analysis of the workforce training needs for Mississippi manufacturers titled “Mississippi Manufacturers: Preparing for the Jobs of the Future.” Also, in June of this year, the Mississippi State Workforce Investment Board completed its three-year strategic plan for workforce development in the state. The following observations were gleaned from those sources.

Logically, the first step in analyzing our workforce is determining if we’re even going to have enough workers to do the work. Unfortunately, under current projections, the answer is no.

By 2014, Mississippi will need 200,000 more workers, but population projections indicate growth of only 100,000 more workers. So, where do we get the additional workers? We need to first look inside the state and reclaim some of those who are non-participants.

This entails reducing the high school dropout rate and encouraging adults to earn a GED. There are few manufacturing jobs for the uneducated. Further, we need to assist ex-offenders, welfare recipients and those having disabilities with opportunities for training and placement. And, finally, we must look outside our borders and attract workers from other states to move here. We need to keep this situation in mind as our country wrestles with the issues of immigration.

Recruiting and retention of manufacturing workers are both problem areas. The negative stigma of manufacturing work discourages youngsters from considering it for a career. Further, low wages make recruiting difficult. And if that’s not bad enough, many applicants lack the basic skills to do the job.

Other issues cited were:

• Lack of adequate childcare, housing and public transportation add to the problem of recruiting and retention.

• Drug use and poor work ethic are common problems among workers and applicants.

What do we do?

Lots of experienced workers are nearing retirement age. Their replacements are both too few in numbers and, in many cases, lack the skills required to do the job.

The next logical step would be to look at our education and training structure to see what changes are needed to supply a good, solid workforce. The MMA study concluded that our education systems are not keeping pace with advances in technology. As a result, even high school graduates are not prepared for the technology-driven jobs in manufacturing.

When asked what should be done, respondents were generous and vocal in their answers. Among the most often repeated suggestions, they said:

• High school graduates simply must have basic reading, writing and math skills.

• Schools should reintroduce discipline in school to teach right from wrong and thereby improve the students’ work ethic.

• Parents should not discourage a manufacturing career for their children.

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• There should be more emphasis on vocational training for those students not suited for college or those who wish to learn a trade.

Training resources

Overwhelmingly, respondents to MMA’s study chose the state’s community colleges as the best source of training. However, they said that, even as good as they are, community colleges are not fully prepared to meet their needs. In many cases, instructors lack familiarity with the actual skills needed in the workplace.

Some suggestions for improving the situation, from the survey respondents’ viewpoint were:

• Community colleges need to constantly search for qualified vocational instructors who have the skills to teach about new technologies and manufacturing methods.

Community colleges need to partner with manufacturers to provide curriculum based upon the needs of local manufacturers.

Problems abound, but Mississippi people are really good at survival, and we will survive the changes wrought by globalization. What is needed is discussion and understanding of the issues and bonding together all the players to develop solutions.

The MMA and the Mississippi State Workforce Investment Board are two groups who are working to promote solutions and both are worthy of our thanks.

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