Education Failures Imperil U.S. Manufacturing

Published June 1, 2003

A looming shortage of highly skilled employees threatens to undercut the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing and weaken the economy, according to a study released in April by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM).

The projected shortfall is attributed to a combination of factors: demographics, technology, the negative image of manufacturing portrayed on television, and the failure of the educational system to keep up with the needs of manufacturers.

According to a study conducted by the Educational Testing Service, the U.S. economy as a whole will face a growing shortage of skilled workers in the coming decade as the Baby Boom generation begins to retire in large numbers. The shortage for jobs requiring at least some degree of post-secondary education or training is projected to exceed 10 million by 2020.

To begin to address the problem, NAM is calling for a “National Manufacturing Day,” when manufacturers would open their plants and facilities to young people, teachers, and parents. In this way, people could see modern manufacturing plants and today’s manufacturing jobs have little in common with the manufacturing environments they are most familiar with–those depicted on television shows like “Roseanne” and “Laverne and Shirley.”

The new NAM study also shows the U.S. educational system to be “a weak link” between young people and the career opportunities emerging for them in today’s economy. The U.S. sends more than 70 percent of its high school graduates to four-year colleges, but half of them drop out. For those who do graduate, one-third fail to find employment requiring a four-year degree. At the same time, well-paid manufacturing jobs, including those requiring two-year technical degrees or skill certificates from shorter programs at community colleges, remain unfilled.

An earlier NAM report, “The Skills Gap 2001,” indicated even high school graduates interested in manufacturing jobs are not receiving the kind of skills training necessary to compete in a high-tech environment. Almost four out of five (78 percent) manufacturers believed K-12 schools are not doing a good job of preparing students for the workplace. The most serious deficiencies cited were in basic employability skills–attendance, timeliness, and work ethic–as well as in math, problem solving, and communication.

Today’s Manufacturing Sector

Although the U.S. manufacturing sector has suffered 32 consecutive months of job losses–more than 2 million positions in all–businesses are likely to expand employment again as the economy recovers. But when that happens, the supply of skilled workers won’t be sufficient to keep up with demand, according to the report, “Keeping America Competitive: How a Talent Shortage Threatens U.S. Manufacturing,” produced jointly by NAM, The Manufacturing Institute, and Deloitte & Touche.

More than 80 percent of manufacturers reported a “moderate to serious” shortage of qualified job applicants when polled for NAM’s 2001 report. The new study was undertaken to identify the reasons behind the shortfall and also to determine why fewer young people were interested in pursuing careers in manufacturing.

“To continue to succeed, U.S. manufacturers must compete on product design, productivity, flexibility, quality, and responsiveness to customer needs,” said Dick Gabrys, vice chairman and global manufacturing leader for Deloitte & Touche. “These competitive mandates put a high premium on a wide range of skills needed to keep up with advancing technology in every aspect of manufacturing–from design and production to delivery and service.”

Manufacturing accounts for a full 22 percent of GDP, the report explains, and every $1 million in manufacturing sales supports eight other jobs in manufacturing and six jobs in other sectors. In addition, while the general economy grew at an average of 3.6 percent a year during the 1990s, the manufacturing sector grew at an annual rate of 4.6 percent.

“Today’s manufacturing company is a major source of high-tech innovation, wealth creation and … opportunity,” notes the report. “Manufacturing’s varied jobs and careers averaged $54,000 in total compensation in 2000–20 percent higher than the average of all American workers–while 83.7 percent of manufacturing employees receive health benefits from their employers, more than any other sector except government.”

Negative Perceptions

But the study’s researchers found the public perception of manufacturing to be much less attractive. Across a wide spectrum of respondents, the image of the manufacturing sector was seen to be heavily loaded with negative connotations. Respondents associated manufacturing with “frequent news reports of accounting scandals, layoffs, jobs moving offshore, pollution, plant closures, and labor-management conflicts.” Worse still, manufacturing was perceived as being part of the “old economy,” in rapid decline and moving to Third World countries.

“Things just aren’t seen as made in America anymore,” one respondent said. Students, parents, educators, and manufacturing executives all wondered why one should seek a career in manufacturing if it is “not going to be there for long.”

Students frequently cited TV sitcoms such as “Laverne & Shirley,” “I Love Lucy,” and “Roseanne” as having negatively influenced their view of manufacturing. Other respondents noted the absence of TV programs or movies showing manufacturing professionals in attractive settings. “Manufacturing” generally connoted “assembly line,” rather than calling to mind one of manufacturing’s many highly skilled positions such as engineer, product manager, designer, or R&D professional.

“Roseanne worked in a factory,” said one Los Angeles college student. “It provided for some funny episodes, but not a good image for manufacturing as a career choice.”

Many adults and educators also have simplistic views of manufacturing. When asked about a career in manufacturing for their children, one parent said she “thinks of the sweat shops of the Kathy Lee clothing line.” She wouldn’t want her daughter to work for a company like that, even as an executive.

“The manufacturing jobs I’ve seen, you don’t need a fourth-grade education for,” commented a K-8 educator from Alabama. “I wouldn’t recommend a career in manufacturing to any of these college-bound kids.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The April 2003 report from the National Association of Manufacturers, The Manufacturing Institute, and Deloitte & Touche–“Keeping America Competitive: How a Talent Shortage Threatens U.S. Manufacturing”–is available online at and

The four-page summary and 37-page full report are also available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for documents #12197 (summary) and #12196 (full report).