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HR Leadership Column

The Good News and the Bad News

A combination of factors may lead to a resurgence of manufacturing in the United States. While that's certainly a positive development, the downside is that HR leaders will be challenged to find job candidates proficient in STEM skills.

Monday, May 14, 2012
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Many years ago, my father vehemently opposed my decision to use my savings and buy a used 1970 Volkswagen Bug. It was my first car, and he argued I had no understanding of the true cost of owning a car -- the insurance, gas, maintenance, etc.

A few months later, OPEC imposed a fuel embargo on the United States in response to a U.S. decision to re-supply the Israeli military during the Yom Kippur War. Gas was rationed, and there were long lines at the pumps. I remember this particularly clearly, because that was when my father announced that "we" had made a smart decision to buy such a fuel-efficient car.

The embargo raised concerns -- and brought into sharp focus -- U.S. dependence on overseas oil for its energy needs; a concern that has continued for the past 40 years.

The good news is that some recent reports are suggesting that U.S. energy independence may finally be within reach. This security is because of a huge boom in oil and natural-gas production in the nation and an increased focus on fuel-efficient cars and renewable resources. Some believe this will lead to energy sufficiency for Americans within 20 years.

Why should U.S.-based HR executives care about energy sufficiency (beyond never having to worry about sitting in a gas line)? Because as the nation relies more on domestically produced natural gas, the economics of offshoring manufacturing changes.

The "perfect storm" of lower energy costs, greater employee productivity, rising wages in places such as China and India, and higher international shipping costs, may combine to make the nation much more attractive for manufacturing.

Research from the Boston Consulting Group and a poll from the Society for Human Resource Management suggest the tide is already beginning to change in this regard.

If energy independence and a rebounding manufacturing sector is good news, what's the bad news? After all, it means more job opportunities -- and that's the problem. They are jobs that require science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills.

This potential new demand will only exacerbate the existing challenge many HR executives in the manufacturing sector are already facing as they try to fill current positions.

And the statistics on the future availability of workers with, for example, math skills, are pretty grim. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States places 18th among its member countries in overall mathematical skills.

There have been many initiatives launched to grapple with the STEM shortage. Educational reforms have attempted to focus greater attention on math skills. Government studies have suggested that communities take up action to meet the challenge. Websites such as Stemconnector.org have been created to try to expedite dissemination of information on strategies that might prove useful.

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And summits have been held or planned for concerned parties to discuss how best to meet the challenge. On June 24, in fact, SHRM and the U.S. Department of Labor will hold a summit on the shortage of skilled workers in manufacturing.

So what can just one already overworked HR executive really do?

Begin by resisting the temptation to be overwhelmed. Become fully versed in the scope of what this means for your business -- wherever it's located -- and make sure other executives appreciate the challenge.

Accept that educational efforts and achievements aren't uniform at all state and local levels, and begin to tackle the problem at a local level. Investigate how well the localities are preparing students for a career in manufacturing. Take steps to help educators understand the current -- and future -- needs of your business.

Of course, to do that, you need to know your business well enough to be able to educate the educators, or, to use a hockey analogy, help them skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it is now.

 

In addition, learn about and take advantage of new technologies that are now available for workforce training. Training that may have seemed insurmountably expensive in the past becomes more affordable with technology -- especially as the need for skilled talent becomes more critical.

Finally, remember that the good news -- potential energy independence and the resulting rebound to manufacturing -- outweighs the bad news. After all, wouldn't you rather have the challenge of finding skilled workers instead of having to let them go?

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

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