Supply Chain Matters has been echoing other thought leadership voices across the manufacturing and supply chain spectrum addressing the continuing shortage and/or retention of skilled workers. In our 2013 Predictions for Global Supply Chains, we again noted these challenges as inhibiting the current renaissance of U.S. Manufacturing, and in Prediction Four, specifically addressed supply chain talent development and retention as a continuing challenge. These challenges are global in perspective, particularly involving China, the prime focal point for global manufacturing and distribution.

Thus it was with peak interest that we came across a New York Times article, syndicated on this weekend that reported that Chinese college graduates continue to frown on assuming any factory floor job opportunities.  It reports that thousands of Chinese factories struggle to find workers who can operate complicated production equipment, much less maintain or repair such equipment.  Students aspire to pursue academic courses of study leading to professional occupations, while vocational training has stagnated.

The problem is not uncommon, particularly for a developing nation.  Students aspire to become part of the elite working class by pursuing a college education.  They view the hard, perhaps factory or farm related work of their parents in negative connotations.  Parents themselves aspire that their children will be better off economically, and often sacrifice to have their children attend a college or university.  It is a common problem, seen and experienced in many countries that have developed and matured an economy.

The critical aspect for China is that it has positioned itself as the global hub of manufacturing. We noted in a recent posting how China’s leaders now want to shift the focus of manufacturing toward higher value, higher margin strategic industries that can compete both within China and the global economy. The implication of course, translates to a more skilled workforce, not only on the manufacturing shop floor but across the multi-functional aspects of supply chain management.

How do we, as a community solve these problems of attracting required talent to pursue manufacturing and supply chain careers?

The answer lies in many dimensions.  It begins with industry, which must stop whining about skill shortages and initiate program, community and academic partnerships to recruit and effectively train people in required skills or occupations.  The stigma of manufacturing work is best addressed by placing more value to the workers that perform such tasks.  That includes competitive wages, a more attractive working environment and an organizational climate that values worker input, initiative and career progression.  For China specifically, it implies moving beyond some current “militaristic” supervisory and working environments where workers are scorned. The stigma of labor social responsibility is one that must be addressed in a more positive fashion.  Apple alone disclosed last week that it will institute stepped-up audits of working conditions among Chinese suppliers after it continues to find multiple cases of use of underage workers, discrimination and wage problems. The company is also encouraging its suppliers to institute student intern programs. Samsung had previously announced stepped-up audits of suppliers based on recent findings.

Multi-functional supply chain skill shortages are addressed by industry-academic partnerships that foster world class supply chain management curriculums at universities, along with opportunities for internships and on-the-job training.  Universities such as Michigan State University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have instituted partnership programs with other universities in developing regions to train students in modern logistics and supply chain skill areas, and more should be encouraged.

As a community, we need to continue to spread the word on the value of manufacturing and supply chain related careers, to counter current stigmas among younger students.  This is the future of our discipline.

Readers are encouraged to share their views on this topic in the Comments section below this posting.

Bob Ferrari