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Help Wanted: U.S. Manufacturing Faces Growing 'Skills Gap'

Help Wanted: U.S. Manufacturing Faces Growing ‘Skills Gap’


There are plenty of well-paying jobs in U.S. manufacturing. But experts say there aren’t enough qualified workers—and the problem is only going to grow.

During the next 10 years, the United States is expected to see nearly 3.4 million manufacturing jobs come open, thanks to economic growth and a wave of retiring Baby Boomers. That’s on top of the 900,000 jobs that have been created since early 2010, one of the best runs for U.S. manufacturing in recent memory.

If current trends continue, though, we’re going to be 2 million workers short, according to a study from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute.

Across the country, employers in manufacturing and other vocational-technical fields are complaining about a “skills gap.” It’s becoming harder and harder to find job applicants with the right mix of skills, especially as technology and automation assume even greater roles.

Yes, the U.S. workforce is becoming more and more efficient. But large and small manufacturing companies alike still need well-trained people in order to prosper—no talent, no growth.

Ask local employers and experts, and you can see signs of a skills gap here in Kansas City.

According to the Mid-America Regional Council, the metro area is on pace to add more than 20,000 jobs in heavy manufacturing by 2024. But, while there’s not a lack of opportunity, “what we’ve heard from business is that young people typically don’t give these jobs first preference,” said Sheri Gonzales Warren, a MARC project manager specializing in community and economic development, including workforce issues.

The lack of interest is especially surprising when you learn that manufacturing jobs often pay better. In 2013, the average manufacturing worker earned $77,506 in pay and benefits compared to $62,546 for U.S. workers overall.

“The reality is that a lot of these skilled careers have starting salaries of $30,000 to $70,000 a year, far more lucrative than someone coming out of a four-year university with a liberal arts degree,” said Mark James, chancellor at the Metropolitan Community College of Kansas City.

Don’t think the skills gap is a problem only for large companies. According to the federal government, small manufacturers employ more than 40 percent of the people in this sector, about 10 points higher than in the 1980s.

So, what is Kansas City doing to make sure it has the manufacturing personnel it needs to grow?

The Search for Solutions

The good news is that educators and community leaders are paying attention to the problem.

» Johnson County Community College is undertaking a review of its career and technical programs, asking local employers about their hiring plans and the kinds of skills they need in new employees. The school held a series of forums just last month with business owners.

“We want to make sure we’re training the critical competencies,” said Richard Fort, JCCC’s assistant dean for industrial technology.

A formal report, part of a campuswide master plan, should be completed by the middle of this year. It could ultimately lead to new space and equipment being devoted to JCCC’s career-technical programs.

» KC Rising—a joint effort of MARC, the Kansas City Area Development Council and the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City—is developing a plan for boosting the region’s economy, and while work is still ongoing, manufacturing was highlighted as an area of interest at KC Rising’s launch.

» More local school districts are adding career-based educational programs, such as the Summit Technology Academy in Lee’s Summit and the Center for Advanced Professional Studies programs in Blue Valley and the Northland. Students work on real-world projects with professionals, often in STEM fields.

“What’s unfortunate is this is not happening in every district in every school across the region,” Gonzales Warren said.

» A few years ago, Metropolitan Community College started meeting regularly with a consortium of local manufacturers, large and small, to make sure that its students were learning the skills that will make them employable.

In return, those companies—now 60 to 70 strong—agreed to take on MCC students as interns.

“We’ve pulled out some very, very good interns from that school,” said Kevin Mummaw, a machine shop supervisor at Fike, a Blue Springs company that produces fire alarm systems, fire suppression solutions and other products.
Mummaw has been with the company for 30 years, and looking around his workplace, he can quickly find others who’ve been there for 30- or 20-odd years. Bringing on newer employees is essential to keep Fike going strong well into the future.

It’s true, the younger guys do pick up a lot of lessons from the veterans—but they also bring much to the table. They’re open-minded, so they can be taught new technologies quickly. In some cases, longtime employees even learn from the newbies.

“They feed off each other,” Mummaw said.

Fike has been able to offer jobs to several of its MCC interns. Mummaw has seen interns go from living with their parents, driving a beat-up car, to moving out on their own and starting their own families, all thanks to their success at Fike.

“Being a machinist,” he said, “this is something they can never really take from you.”

Why the Gap Won’t Go Away Overnight

You might be tempted to play devil’s advocate, as some economists have: Is there really a skills gap? Unemployment
is down, but millions of job seekers are still searching for full-time work. Are companies just being too picky about the people they’re hiring?
If they are, it’s hard to blame them. Selecting well-trained people is critical for companies like UltraSource, a Kansas City company that makes processing and packaging equipment for the meat industry.

Its own machinery costs hundreds of thousands of dollars—and can be taken offline for weeks if a user doesn’t set it up properly, said Jeff Toft, UltraSource’s director of human resources. Even a mistake of a few millimeters can become a giant disaster.

That’s why UltraSource is part of the MCC consortium. “It gives us a connection to people with some beginning skills in the machine shops,” Toft said.

MCC is able to provide a bedrock of training—safety protocols, business math, a familiarity with equipment like a computer numerical control (CNC) router. “But you still have a lot of on-the- job training,” Toft said.

Take the CNC devices, for example. Every employer uses its own brand of machinery, which takes time to learn. And that’s not counting all the unwritten skills and shorthand that you can only pick up on the job.

Plus, technology is always evolving in the manufacturing world, and it can be tough for schools to keep pace.

“We at MCC, we try to be nimbler and more flexible than the average bear,” James said, “but even for us, we can’t turn on a dime like industry. That’s probably our biggest challenge.”

How Your Small Business Can Help

If you’re a smaller manufacturer, there are two ways you can help Kansas City bridge the skills gap.

WORK WITH INTERNS // Nothing prepares a student better for the working world than actually spending time in the working world. Local educators are always looking for community partners who are willing to spend time with their students.

Some companies are reluctant to take on interns, worrying they don’t have the time to properly manage them. In many cases, though, an internship program becomes a talent development and recruitment program for a company.

“This is an opportunity to kind of kick the tires in a no-harm, no-foul situation,” James said.

SPEAK UP // As it has studied local workforce issues, MARC has sought input from all kinds of companies, from the largest manufacturers to more modest startups. It’s usually harder to get smaller businesses involved, Gonzales Warren said, because they don’t have the time or staff to send someone to meetings.

By letting MARC and local educators know more about what your company needs, you’ll help them better prepare their students.

“Those businesses are the future of the economy in Kansas City,” she said, “and we want to make sure, as they grow, they have the talent they need.”

James Hart

Written by

James Hart is a freelance writer based in Kansas City.

Categories: Growth Strategy


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