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How to secure America's future in manufacturing

July 25, 2012: 10:58 AM ET

American companies are struggling to find qualified candidates while training efforts cannot keep pace with technology. Here's what we should be doing.

By Amy Kaslow

FORTUNE -- Stubbornly high unemployment, skills shortages, and the age-split workforce: unlikely spurs for United States manufacturing growth? These challenges could finally push those on the hiring end to develop the talent they need to stay competitive.

American companies are scouring resume piles for qualified candidates while hit or (mostly) miss workforce training efforts cannot keep pace with new technologies. Absent an adequate pool of talented domestic workers, firms will continue to go offshore where skilled labor is both abundant and affordable.

So, then, what can American manufacturers do to secure their future?

Make the case for a career in manufacturing

Employers want to hire local, but to have the talent, they have to create the interest. While the headlines would suggest otherwise, manufacturing is a vital part of the U.S. economy, offering jobseekers the widest range of occupations, mobility, and earning potential.  U.S. manufacturers made a $1.8 trillion difference in the GDP last year, representing roughly 12% of total economic output. They paid higher wages than employers in other U.S. sectors, employed 11.5 million Americans, and supported almost 7 million jobs in other industries. The U.S. Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calculates that for every dollar of value created in manufacturing, $1.40 is created in other sectors.

Manufacturers account for nearly two-thirds of U.S. R&D expenditures and employ more engineers and scientists than any other private sector industry. The sector's output makes up over half of U.S. exports and drives more net wealth creation than any other part of the nation's economy.

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That's why slippage in this sector is treacherous. Lacking talent and stuck in a sluggish economy, American manufacturing firms have focused on survival, satisfying shareholders, and the expedient answer to talent shortages: outsourcing or offshoring. While many firms remain at the forefront of technology, that lead is narrowing. The U.S. labor market lost 687,000 high-tech manufacturing jobs to overseas production -- that's a 28% decrease in the base of American talent capable of producing high-tech goods since 2000.

Communicate the severity of the problem

We all have a stake. The dearth of skilled workers threatens national infrastructure and industrial competitiveness. The nation is severely short on operations and maintenance workers who create, run, and troubleshoot everything from storm sewers to nuclear reactors. Ditto for the utilities, transmission, and pipeline workers. 

Many of these shortages are in so-called "middle-skill" jobs: nuclear electricians, hydraulic engineers, and people who make and run what we use everyday -- from life-saving tubing hook ups in hospital rooms to the bridges we cross. These are not jobs that can be off-shored. And despite the spending on highways and smart grids, building more infrastructure is questionable if the U.S. cannot even maintain and repair what it already has. More

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