Is There A Manufacturing Skills Gap?

by Fred Siegmund

President Carter’s domestic policy advisor, Stuart Eizenstat, and Robert Lerman, an Urban Institute Fellow, claim there is a skills gap in manufacturing that threatens America’s manufacturing comeback (“Bring back the apprentice”, Washington Post, May 5, 2013). Readers are asked to accept a citation from an unnamed survey that claims 600,000 jobs go unfilled because the skills gap is real and America needs an apprenticeship program. The authors worry that “[we] are at risk of squandering this historic opportunity – mainly because firms interested in investing in the United States are finding too few workers with the skills needed . . .”


American manufacturing dropped 2.2 million jobs in the recession months from January 2008 until February 2010. Every single manufacturing sub-sector lost jobs. Since February 2010 the manufacturing recovery is confined to primary and fabricated metals, manufacturing for machinery, and transportation equipment but nothing else. All other sub-sectors combined had a net loss of jobs as small job gains in a few sub-sectors were not enough to offset losses in others. From February 2012 to the end of last year manufacturing is up only 491,000 jobs, less than a quarter of the recessionary losses. With 2.2 million jobs lost in the recession and 491,000 new jobs in the recovery, the difference suggests a surplus of production workers available for hire, not a shortage.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists just four occupations in primary and fabricated metals, machinery and transportation equipment manufacturing that require 12 months or more of on-the-job training: machinist, metal and plastic model makers, metal and plastic pattern makers, and tool and die makers.

Machinists were reported to have 388,000 jobs as of 2012, but there were 419,000 machinist jobs in 2008. The authors cite “a dearth of machinists” when 31,000 machinists laid off in the recession appear available to hire now: a surplus not a shortage.

Model makers had 5,700 jobs in 2012; pattern makers 4,130 jobs. In 2008 there were almost 9,000 jobs as model makers; over 6,000 pattern makers. These are small niche jobs but recessionary layoffs suggest a surplus available to hire, not shortage.

Tool and die makers were reported with 76,000 jobs as of 2012, but there were almost 86,000 in 2008. Tool and die maker jobs are up from 70,000 in 2011, but the increase disguises a long term decline. There were 100,000 tool and die maker jobs in 2005 and 131,000 in 2000. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported jobs suggest a surplus of tool and die makers, not a shortage.

The four occupations above that need long term on-the-job training are among 26 production occupations the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes in a category called metal and plastic workers. In 2008, 2.15 million had jobs in these 26 occupations; only 1.84 million in 2012. These 26 occupations require no more than a high school degree as defined and published in the Bureau of Labor Statistics education and training classification. An apprenticeship requirement is defined in the training classification but not necessary for any of the 26 occupations.

The other 22 metal and plastic work occupations require no more than moderate-on-the-training defined as “competency in an occupation that can be acquired during 1 to 12 months of combined on-the-job experience and informal training. The 22 include welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers, and computer numerically controlled machine tool programmers the authors cite as needing an apprentice program.

Assemblers and fabricators are another major category of production worker with 10 occupations and 1.98 million jobs in 2008 but only 1.72 million jobs in 2012. That leaves 260,000 available to hire, another surplus. None of the ten occupations require long term on-the-job training: six need moderate term on-the-job training, four need only short term on-the-job training defined as a month or less of combined on-the-job experience and informal training.

Eizenstat and Lerman make no use of Bureau of Labor Statistics data to support their claims because the data shows a surplus with no need for apprenticeship programs. When a business complains about a shortage of labor, they mean a shortage at the low wage they expect to offer. Instead of bidding up the wage to get the help they want, business moves to far off places like Bangladesh, and then finds a willing or gullible economist to blame the unemployed, who would have a job if they just had the right skills.

Alan Greenspan, the former Fed chair, perfected the “Get some training” propaganda in his capital hill testimony. He was calm and self assured when he placed the blame for unemployment on the unemployed. These guys like drama: “squandering this historic opportunity.” Oh Please! Where is Oprah when we need her?

About the author: Fred Siegmund covers America's jobs as part of work doing labor market analysis and projections for a client base of recruiters, trainers and counselors. Visit him at

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