Wanted: State policies that help build manufacturing workforce

In a July session that largely examined the future of a cornerstone of the Midwest’s economy, three expert speakers also illustrated to legislators just how far it has come over the past few years. “Manufacturing is coming back to North America,” Mark Denzler, vice president and chief operating officer of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, told lawmakers who attended a meeting of the Midwestern Legislative Conference’s Economic Development Committee.
On the U.S. side of the border, more than 900,000 manufacturing jobs have been created since 2009, an increase of nearly 8 percent. In Canada, manufacturers have added more than 130,000 jobs since June 2013.
Nowhere do these trends matter more than in the MLC’s 11 states (home to one-third of U.S. manufacturing employment) and four affiliate Canadian provinces (which account for more than half of that nation’s jobs in the manufacturing sector).

While optimistic about the current state and future of this economic sector, the MLC panel of experts noted at least two potential obstacles to growth: global markets closing as part of protectionist trade policies (U.S. manufacturers export more than $1.4 trillion in goods annually), and firms not finding enough qualified workers.

Denzler and fellow panelist Gene Manchur of the Composites Innovation Centre in Manitoba cited skills gaps and worker shortages as major industrywide challenges. In Minnesota, for example, a survey of that state’s manufacturers (which, combined, employ one out of every seven of the state’s workers) found workforce issues near the top of employers’ concerns. Attracting qualified workers ranked No. 2 (behind only health care costs), and retaining qualified workers ranked No. 4.
“Manufacturing has a lot of energy around it today, but workforce dominates everything; any growth plan requires workforce development,” said Bob Kill, president and CEO of Enterprise Minnesota. He believes part of the solution is raising awareness among young people and their families about all of the opportunities that exist. “We should consider jobs in manufacturing to be careers,” he said.
Kill, too, encouraged policymakers to incorporate STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) into all curricula, not just those aimed at students seeking four-year college degrees.
Another policy option for states is to invest in additional training for workers and education opportunities for young people that fit local labor demands, including in the manufacturing sector. Two recent examples of this approach are the Future Ready Iowa Act (HB 2458, signed into law in April) and Michigan’s recently enacted Marshall Plan for Talent (SB 941 and SB 942).
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Statelline Midwest: August 20182.62 MB