The Blueprint for a Skilled, Mobile Workforce

Sept. 1, 2001
By creating high-skill, high-wage jobs through updated industry-based training, we can increase the number of workers attracted to industry and raise the bar for high-performance workplaces.

The Blueprint for a Skilled, Mobile Workforce

By creating high-skill, high-wage jobs through updated industry-based training, we can increase the number of workers attracted to industry and raise the bar for high-performance workplaces. What’s needed are industry-developed, nationally accepted standards and certifications.

by John M. Rauschenberger

A human resources manager at a manufacturing company reviews 100 applications to fill vacant positions. Only a few are worthy of consideration for an interview and, of those, probably only one or two applicants will get one. In the end, the HR manager has to go right back to the in-box. The search continues and the positions at the company remain vacant.

A high school student sits in trigonometry class, the last period of the day before heading off to a part-time job, wondering: “What’s this all for? Why should I be excited to learn this stuff? How is this going to help me get a good job?”

An employee at a manufacturing plant faces a dilemma: how to advance himself in his career without knowing exactly what training and skills are needed to achieve this.

These hypothetical situations are happening every day in the real world and they spotlight the greatest challenge facing the American manufacturing industry today: ensuring the existence of a skilled workforce in the 21st century. Companies are spending large sums of money looking for the right people. Educators are working to develop curricula that will prepare students to fill positions. Workers want to upgrade their skills and are trying to find the smartest and most effective way to do so.

On May 10, the Manufacturing Skill Standards Board (MSSC) officially released A Blueprint for Workforce Excellence, a set of skill standards created to address these very challenges. The Blueprint, created under the guidance of the National Skill Standards Board (NSSB), represents the nation’s first skill standards developed under a common format and common language for all sectors of manufacturing.

Skill standards can have many uses — for hiring, pinpointing training needs, developing career pathways and more. The standards, when combined with the related assessment and certification tools that the MSSC is also developing, will represent a major national initiative to elevate both the skills and flexibility of the American workforce.

Why do we need skill standards?

In the past, manufacturing employers primarily operated internal labor markets to recruit and prepare workers for long-term, stable, good-paying jobs. Some employers relied on external education institutions to train workers for high-skilled jobs, but the vast majority of manufacturing workers gained their skills on the job or through internal training that was rarely recognized outside a single firm. This approach suited everyone’s needs for a very long time.

But manufacturing has changed. Jobs require more skill, training and experience, especially in the use of technology. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1950, 60 percent of manufacturing jobs were unskilled; today, only 30 percent are unskilled and, by 2005, the number is expected to shrink to 15 percent.

In addition, retirement-eligible workers are leaving manufacturing jobs in large numbers. A study by the University of Michigan reports that the auto industry alone needs to find 250,000 workers by 2005 to replace retirees.

In the 21st century, a skilled and knowledgeable workforce will provide the U.S. industry with its greatest competitive advantage as it strives to maintain its status as the world’s most productive economy, according to the World Economic Forum. High volume has been replaced by high performance and high value-added services in the global marketplace. As a result, in this new economic and technological era, employers are looking for high-skilled workers who work smarter, not just harder.

Yet there is a growing need for greater education and training opportunities for existing manufacturing workers and new workers who may be considering a career in manufacturing. According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey, more than half of the responding companies cited the “need for better education and training” as one of the most significant barriers to the adoption of new technologies.

The American Management Association reports that in 1999, almost 42 percent of manufacturing job applicants lacked basic reading, writing, and math skills needed to do the jobs they sought. And in a recent National Association for Manufacturers survey, 90 percent of the nation’s manufacturers reported a shortage of qualified workers in at least one job category.

We need to ensure greater opportunities for both entry-level and incumbent workers to develop the skills and “portable” credentials necessary to have rewarding careers in manufacturing. By creating high-skill, high-wage jobs through updated industry-based training, we can increase the number of workers attracted to our industry and raise the bar for high-performance workplaces. Bottom line? We need industry-developed, nationally accepted standards and certifications.

How did the MSSC become involved?

In the summer of 1997, major stakeholders in the manufacturing sector came together to address the challenge of ensuring the existence of skilled, mobile workers. MSSC brought together leaders representing companies, workers, educators and related organizations in the manufacturing industry to create a blueprint for a new skills pipeline in manufacturing. It is our hope that this new pipeline will fuel all sectors of the manufacturing economy with skilled workers, while also providing workers with portable credentials and access to good jobs.

Since it is a unique partnership between education, industry and labor, MSSC has been able to provide leadership in the creation of an industry-wide Skill Standards System. In the three years since its inception, the MSSC has completed the first two of four steps in the Skill Standards System: creation of a broad-based coalition and the development of the Skill Standards. The MSSC Skill Standards are the cornerstone of the entire system and provide the framework for future assessments and certifications that will enable companies, educators and trainers to put these standards to practical use.

More than 3,800 front-line workers, 700 companies, 300 experts and 30 facilitating organizations participated in the development of the MSSC skill standards. By finding the right workers for the right jobs, the skill standards will increase workplace efficiency and productivity and improve the competitiveness of American manufacturing companies in today’s global economy.

What are the skill standards?

These standards represent the best practices for high-performance work and define the skills and knowledge required to ensure a skilled, mobile industrial workforce. This includes the research and national validation of the specific job functions in best practice work sites — the indicators that tell when the job is completed successfully, as well as the level of technical knowledge and skills needed for the job. Because MSSC standards were developed with all manufacturing sectors in mind, they provide a detailed outline of the skills and knowledge well-trained manufacturing workers have and employers seek.

There are three distinct levels of skill standards: core, concentration and specialized. MSSC has developed standards for six concentration areas and has identified the core skills and knowledge that are common to all six concentrations. The concentration areas are:

• Production;

• Health, Safety and Environment Assurance;

• Logistics and Inventory Control;

• Maintenance, Installation and Repair;

• Production Process Development;

• Quality Assurance.

The MSSC Skill Standards are meant to complement, not compete with, existing training programs, like apprenticeships, which are well-establish training mechanisms. To connect to the specialty level, the MSSC will work with “specialty groups,” many of which have already developed their own standards (for example, the metalworking, welding, chemicals and electronics sectors) to see how their standards and those created by MSSC fit together to provide a common pathway toward reaching MSSC Skill Standards.

As a standalone piece of the system, the skill standards can serve as a communications tool for use between companies, the education community and current and future workers. The skill standards can be used in many other ways:

• To benchmark manufacturing processes to best practices;

• To develop job descriptions;

• To enable companies to work with line managers, unions and employees to conduct training needs analyses;

• To develop and/or improve training programs;

• To work with local schools to develop curricula and programs to prepare students for good manufacturing jobs.

The standards, when combined with the related assessment and certification tools that the MSSC is also developing, will give workers a “passport” — a set of transferable skills that are recognized by virtually every sector within the manufacturing industry and beyond. This passport gives displaced workers a heightened level of job security by allowing them to carry a standard set of core and concentration skills from one position to the next.

What’s next?

These MSSC skill standards are just the beginning. We have already started to reach out to various segments of the manufacturing industry to encourage adoption and implementation of the standards. We are committed to updating these standards to ensure that the skills employers seek and the training students receive will be relevant to America’s future workplaces.

MSSC will also develop the skills assessment and certification process before the end of 2001. Finally, research will be conducted to determine the best use of the standards in various settings. Those findings should also be available by the end of the year.

Eventually, using the MSSC Skill Standards System will mean that our fictional HR manager will be able to accurately describe vacant company positions and quickly identify the workers who are qualified to fill them. Our high school student will know how the courses she’s taking now will lead to a good job as soon as school finishes. Our worker will know exactly the type of training and certification needed to upgrade his skills and secure advanced positions.

By meeting this challenge, the manufacturing industry will get its just reward: a workforce that enables it to continue to play a leading role in maintaining the U.S.’s status as the world’s leading economy.

About the Author

John M. Rauschenberger, chairman of the MSSC Steering Committee, is manager of Personnel Research and Development for Ford Motor Company where he is responsible for the design and implementation of a variety of corporate workforce initiatives including workforce competency development, leadership behavior assessment, employee opinion measurement, and external workforce relations.

John has been active in a variety of school-to-work and workforce development initiatives over the past 10 years. He holds active memberships in the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) and Academy of Management and is a charter member of the American Psychological Society (APS). John is an author and co-author of a number of professional research articles and book chapters, and is a past member of the Editorial Board for the Innovations in Research-Based Practice section of Personnel Psychology Journal.

For more information about the MSSC and the skill standards. and to order copies of A Blueprint for Workforce Excellence, visit the MSSC Web site at

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