In The News

Taking Action to Close the Manufacturing Skills Gap

Hands-on experiences make students believe in their own manufacturing future

When it comes to important issues, National Tooling & Machining Association (NTMA) members rank workforce development as their number one concern— ranking ahead of taxes and healthcare costs. Ninety seven percent of our members report they have at least one open skilled position. Nationally, 86 percent of U.S. manufacturers have open skilled positions and 94 percent report having difficulty recruiting qualified employees. All of these numbers indicate that manufacturers need to inspire, engage, recruit and train a new generation of skilled workers for high-tech, high-paying jobs.

Industry-led initiatives like Manufacturing Day have been very effective in changing the perception of modern manufacturing. It is very important that students, parents, teachers and our communities gain a better perspective of what manufacturing is all about.  Companies can help by opening their doors for tours and special events. This has an immediate positive impact on the perception of manufacturing. In 2016, 84 percent of student Manufacturing Day participants said they were more convinced that manufacturing provides careers that are interesting and rewarding. However, that change in perception is only for that moment in time. There are no statistics that show how many students pursue manufacturing as a career because their school visited a facility on Manufacturing Day.

Changing perceptions is an important step in the process of closing the manufacturing skills gap, but it is missing one critical component – engaging students in exciting, hands-on experiential STEM learning. These experiences through business/education partnerships spark interest and build the current and future workforce the manufacturing industry needs. The MForesight Education and Workforce Development Working Group’s report America’s Next Manufacturing Workforce: Promising Practices for Education and Skills labels this as Engaging Students in STEM & Manufacturing: Creating a Manufacturing Mindset. STEM programs offer workable solutions by providing accessible and dynamic resources to help students and parents access current information about careers in advanced manufacturing and by engaging students at all levels in hands-on activities. These activities both inspire interest in advanced manufacturing and help students better prepare for future manufacturing careers.

A recent survey by The Manufacturing Institute and SkillsUSA concluded that 63 percent of enrolled high school students see their own interests and experiences as a major influence in their career pathway, and parents are the second-largest influence at 32 percent. While it is important that students understand how cool it is to work in the industry, students will not pursue these career options unless they believe that they have the aptitude to succeed. This is why it is important to engage students in project-based, STEM learning experiences that mirror the manufacturing process of designing, building, testing and repairing. Students will start to learn the technical and critical thinking skills needed by industry because they are involved in STEM projects that are in creative, competitive and rewarding formats. Then, it is up to industry leaders to build relationships with these students by serving as project mentors in order to reinforce that manufacturing companies want to hire them.

NTMA’s National Robotics League (NRL) program is one example of a project-based STEM program that combines skills training with the development of talent pipelines. Students that participate in the NRL program work in teams to design, build, test and rebuild remote-controlled 15lb bots to battle in gladiator-style competitions. This program evolved from the original BattleBots TV show, adding in more “real-world” components like the requirement of an engineering documentation binder and industry involvement.

Here are some personal stories from the field that show the real impact of NRL:

  • In northwestern Pennsylvania, I met the all-girls RoboBots team from Meadville Senior High School. During our conversation, one team member told me that she is planning to go straight into an apprenticeship program when she graduates from high school this year. Her involvement in the program drove her to explore this post-secondary pathway. Another teammate selected her college because its engineering program would provide her the opportunity to take machine shop classes.
  • In Cleveland, students at the Beaumont School spend their Saturday mornings at Christopher Tool & Manufacturing Company machining their bot parts under the tutelage of experienced machinists. The Beaumont School is an all-girls Catholic high school that does not have a traditional technology education program. These talented students take pride in the fact that they are only receiving guidance from their industry advisors in the bot building process and that they are doing all of the machining, welding and electrical engineering.

Creating a skilled, tech-savvy labor force that can meet today’s needs of modern manufacturing, along with the needs of tomorrow is critical to U.S. economic growth. The combination of developing the talent of young people with a passion for innovation and technology and sparking student interest in manufacturing careers by connecting them to local manufacturers will truly ENGAGE MANUFACTURING’S NEXT GENERATION.Who can’t get excited about that?

Bill Padnos is the Director of Youth Engagement for the National Tooling & Machining Association ( He is directly responsible for the management of the National Robotics League ( Bill can be reached at