Retool or Die! What College Presidents Can Learn From The Machine Tool Industry

The skills gap is well understood in all manufacturing sectors today and significant progress is being made to address it. But there is another skills shortage that may be even more problematic for the economy. It is the lack of career preparation and job search skills that undermine the success of young college grads today. This has all kinds of strategic implications for higher ed institutions.

One  Federal Reserve study found 44 percent of college grads age 22-29 were in jobs that don’t require a college degree. The inability of Millennials to find work that utilizes their education investment is threatening the viability of many liberal arts colleges today. Students – and their parents – simply won’t keep paying huge tuition bills to invest in a future that provides no promise of long-term economic security.

Working to find solutions for skills gaps brings me in contact with top executives in many sectors, including higher education, healthcare and manufacturing. I’ve been working with leaders in the machine tool industry on “skills gap” solutions. Here are three lessons executives in precision manufacturing have learned about addressing skill shortages. University presidents would be wise to learn from their experience.

1. Success today requires taking on critical tasks done by others in the past.

Manufacturers, historically, relied on vocational schools to train and socialize their next generation of talent. But two things happened. Manufacturing has become very high tech, requiring a much more skilled labor base. Meanwhile, most vocational schools had stopped preparing students for manufacturing jobs. This has left a huge skills shortage in many manufacturing sectors. As a result, for example, machine tool companies have had to create extensive internship and apprenticeship programs to fill the void.

Similarly, the post-college job market has become much more demanding in terms of skills. But employers in most industries are doing less and less to train their workers. To survive and thrive in this environment, liberal arts colleges must reinvent their personal and career development services for students. Progressive schools are now looking at this as a whole systems problem that must proactively involve not only reenergized career services departments, but also faculty, academic advisors, alumni and parents.

Higher ed institutions, like manufacturers, can no longer assume others will handle essential skill development. The skills needed in the workplace have become too sophisticated and the expectations have changed about where those investments should be made. Liberal arts colleges must do more to close this career development skills gap while still pursuing their mission to help students develop “a meaningful philosophy of life.”

2. Don’t try to address changing skill needs alone.

Universities, like manufacturers, will be held accountable for developing employable resources, but companies are learning they can’t do this by themselves. There is a growing list of partnerships that employers have formed with local community colleges and non-profit agencies to find and develop talent with specific skills needed in the local market.

In Minnesota, for example, small manufacturers realized they lacked the critical mass needed to encourage local schools to create the training programs needed. So competitors began collaborating on workforce training needs to convince schools there was a big enough demand for specialized programs.

Smart higher ed leaders, who are feeling resource constrained by declining tuition revenues, must look for ways to collaborate with other schools to leverage alumni networks and other career development programs. For example, colleges in the same region might sponsor joint field trips to major cities that help students leverage alumni networks and meet with potential employers. And many schools are actively trying to use their alumni and parent networks more effectively.

3. Communicate local success stories to show key stakeholders that you deliver results.

The machine tool industry has had an image problem for years. Parents and high school counselors have been steering young people away from these manufacturing jobs because they viewed them as low status, dirty and unstable. Manufacturing leaders have often tried to counter this bias by making a rational case to parents and students that their industry offers a viable career path. But marketing campaigns loaded with general statistics about job openings and potential pay rarely work.

Manufacturers, instead, are changing hearts and minds by making personal connections with individual students, parents and teachers. Documented local success stories that show engaged young workers who have benefitted from manufacturing training are much more effective than statistics.

Similarly, liberal arts colleges must collect and communicate recent stories that demonstrate the value of majoring in English, history or psychology today. Showing parents of prospective students video interviews of recent grads who have launched promising careers is a start. As in the machine tool industry, a personalized, long-term campaign will be needed to convince parents and students about the pay off of a liberal arts education.

Many sectors are going through dramatic changes because of new skill sets needed in the workplace. Winners and losers are already evident in precision manufacturing where “retool or die” has become the workforce development mandate. Leaders in higher education may be on a different mission, but they are wise to look for relevant lessons in other sectors before it’s too late.