Radical skill changes in manufacturing

Published 7:42 pm Friday, April 18, 2014

Anita Brown-Graham

Anita Brown-Graham


Jobs and education. We all know that one depends upon the other. But many of the jobs of today require different skills than the jobs our parents and grandparents held, even if those jobs are in the same industries.

Manufacturing is a good example of the radical skill changes.

North Carolina focused on these changes during the 2013 Emerging Issues Forum, @Manufacturing Works.

As experts in modern manufacturing from across the country shared their expertise, the attendees from across the state focused on an important challenge — the skills gap between the jobs of today and the skills of the workforce. North Carolina has a workforce that can’t find jobs and a manufacturing industry that can’t find skilled workers. The question facing the crowd huddled together in the Raleigh Convention Center and those sitting in front of personal computers in every corner of the state watching the live stream of the event — “How is the skills gap impacting the competitiveness of North Carolina as manufacturing jobs are being reshored to the United States?”

There is plenty of national debate about the nature and extent of any existing skills gap, but few argue against the notion that there are some specific shortages in certain places. Likewise, few suggest that the problem is unsolvable.

The Institute for Emerging Issues takes pressing issue that compromise North Carolina’s economic prospects and works with stakeholders to find opportunities to resolve those challenges. Last year, based on the direction set by our Emerging Issues Forum attendees, we focused on local skills gaps in modern manufacturing.

IEI partnered with the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, N.C. Cooperative Extension and the N.C. Community College System and coordinated statewide forums at the county level. There, we brought in manufacturers, educators, elected officials and community leaders. When we brought these groups into the same room, we heard repeatedly that modern manufacturing “looks” different from a generation ago. Available jobs require higher technical knowledge, and the higher salaries reflect this upward skill requirement. We watched as some local leaders reconsidered the important place of manufacturing to local economies. After all, the manufacturing industry contributes more to the state GDP than any other sector.

IEI released a report on what 15 communities have done to reposition themselves in the modern manufacturing world. Information about our work with Beaufort, Bladen, Cabarrus, Catawba, Chatham, Cumberland, Franklin, Granville, Lincoln, Rutherford, Stanly, Stokes, Vance, Warren and Wilson counties highlights important work taking place in the state.

A few things are clear. First, finding ways to create a seamless path from education to gainful employment for our citizens benefits us all. Reviewing the success stories of other communities can aid all communities in taking the necessary steps to build these pathways. And, second strong networks are important to building effective channels between educational systems and employers.

I encourage you to visit the IEI web page and read the report, review the additional resources, and think about what more can be done within your community. For so long, we thought manufacturing was dead. Now we know, North Carolina has the potential to lead the third Industrial Revolution. Let’s get serious about investing in a ready and able workforce.

Anita Brown-Graham is the director of the Institute for Emerging Issues in Raleigh.