Workforce Skills Hamper Productivity, Manufacturers Say

By Jonathan Weisman — December 11, 1991 4 min read

Up to 40 percent of the nation’s manufacturing firms say their efforts to upgrade workplace technology and increase productivity have been stymied by the low level of education of their workforce, according to a new study by the National Association of Manufacturers.

The study also found that most manufacturers believe the workplace must be more integrated into the schools through such programs as apprenticeships, job shadowing, and other methods of school-to-work transition. Nevertheless, it notes, only a handful of firms are participating in such projects.

The report, based on a survey of 360 small, medium, and large manufacturing companies, was released last month.

Because of employee-skill deficiency, the survey indicates, 40 percent of firms are having serious problems upgrading technology, 37 percent are having difficulty raising productivity, and 30 percent have not been able to reorganize into a high-performance workplace by giving employees more responsibility.

Businesses also said they reject five out of six job candidates and have found shortages of skilled and semiskilled workers throughout the country, with shortages expected to become severe by 1996.

Education Involvement Low

The survey also found, however, that few manufacturing firms are responding to their problems by becoming involved in education.

About 20 percent of the manufacturers said they provide their workers courses in mathematics and communication skills, while less than 15 percent offer reading and writing courses.

Cooperation with public education is even less extensive, the report reveals. Eleven percent of the companies reported involvement in pre-employment training, usually through the schools. Just 5 percent have on-site training programs for high-school students, despite professed support for such programs. Four percent conduct a senior- year apprenticeship program, and 3 percent provide mentors to students.

For all the rhetoric about business involvement in education, the findings are not surprising, said Joseph Gibbons, a senior consultant with the Towers Perrin Company, the management- consulting firm that compiled the study.

“I’ve been around public relations long enough to know that the [International Business Machines Corporations] can continue to pump in so many millions of dollars into education,” he said, ‘But as a matter of fact, the I.B.M.'s are few and far between.”

Indeed, Mr. Gibbeus said he was encouraged by the survey’s evidence of growth in manufacturer involvement in education. Five percent of the companies without on-site training programs for students said they are planning such efforts, he noted, while 3 percent are planning apprenticeship programs, and 3 percent are planning new mentorship projects.

Seeking ‘Carbon Copies’?

The N.A.M. report is another in a series of recent reports on workforce- skill levels. In effect, it counters other studies that have contended that the effect of workforce quality on productivity has been greatly exaggerated. (See Education Week, Nov. 13, 1991 .)

Some experts also express skepticism over corporate complaints about the quality of the workforce such as those evident in the N.A.M. report. Business executives traditionally have found fault with their employees’ skills, they suggest, and sometimes may do so because of factors that have little to do with education.

“Employers always want better employees,” said Sar A. Levitan of the George Washington University Center for Policy Studies. “They complain of shortages because they can’t find their ideal.”

Mr. Gibbons, who wrote the N.A.M. study, agreed in part.

While one- third of the companies surveyed said they regularly reject job candidates because of poor reading and writing skills and one- quarter reject applicants because of poor math skills, he noted, 64 percent said their rejections were based on a feeling that the applicant would “adapt poorly"to the work environment.

“I’m wondering if an awful lot of the smaller manufacturers are not asking for carbon copies of themselves when they were entering the workforce,” Mr. Gibbons said. “The people are showing up at the plant are browner than they used to be, speak a different type of English, if they speak English at all, and I’m sure some residual bias... will show up in any survey.”

Mr. Gibbons also conceded that applicant-rejection rates are skewed by the recession, which has made new job openings scarce and applicants plentiful.

Even so, he argued, the N.A.M. report’s findings on the productivity issue are significant.

“The most amazing thing we’ve found is that about 40 percent of the companies have tried productivity improvement and failed because of the workforce,” he said.

“The finding is, perhaps, the most troubling of the entire survey,” the study said. “It is still more troubling because of the comparatively low level of response from these same manufacturers to remedial training [of employees]... and involvement with local schools.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 1991 edition of Education Week as Workforce Skills Hamper Productivity, Manufacturers Say