“Closing the Skills Gap and Boosting U.S. Competitiveness”

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  • April 25th, 2017
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“Closing the Skills Gap and Boosting U.S. Competitiveness”

Closing the Skills Gap and Boosting U.S. Competitiveness

U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation

March 29, 2017 (courtesy of LobbyIt.com)

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation convened a hearing to explore the technical skills gap in the U.S. manufacturing sector, and to highlight the steps that have already been taken to address this growing issue in the interest of fostering a competitive workforce.


  • John Ratzenberger – Actor, Director, Founder of the American Museum of Manufacturing
  • Rory DeJohn – Senior Vice President of the Turner Construction Company
  • Michael Cartney – President of the Lake Area Technical Institute, retired USAF colonel
  • Jay Neely – Vice President of Law and Public Affairs at Gulfstream Aerospace
  • Judith Marks – Chief Executive Officer of Siemens USA

 Opening Statements:

 Chairman John Thune (R-SD)

  • Chairman Thune stated that there has been a noticeable decline in technical education skills being taught at the public high school level.
  • He added that this presents a problem because many baby boomers are approaching the age of retirement.
  • He stated that a big part of the problem is a negative perception young people have of the manufacturing industry.
  • The Chairman emphasized that in many cases, the push for young people to receive a four-year college degree has made manufacturing recruitment efforts more challenging.
  • He added that U.S. employers have initiated training programs and fostered partnerships with community colleges in an effort to close the skills gap.
  • He stated that the federal government also partners with the public to fund apprenticeships and industry related training programs.

 Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL)

  • Senator Nelson stated many veterans possess world class manufacturing skills as a result of their military training, adding that in the past, they did not qualify them for an industry job because they had not acquired the civilian certifications necessary for employment.
  • The senator stated that many of the available U.S. manufacturing jobs require STEM training, but not a college degree.
  • He also stated that the stigma of blue-collar jobs in today’s culture needs to be extinguished.

 John Ratzenberger

  • Ratzenberger stated that manual arts, such as woodshop and metal working, were removed from the high school curriculum thirty-five years ago.
  • He added the average manufacturing workforce age is now fifty-eight years old in some sectors.
  • He also suggested that society should discard the term “blue-collar” and replace it with “essential-worker,” adding that every tangible item being produced today requires some form of manual labor.

 Rory DeJohn

  • DeJohn stated that while there is over a trillion dollars in the manufacturing industry, there are now thousands of fewer manual laborers than in the past.
  • He stated that it is mostly white men who pursue manufacturing degrees, adding that the industry and Congress need to make more of an effort to reach other demographics.
  • He stated that entry level positions in the construction trade industry have a higher median income when compared to entry level business positions.
  • DeJohn added that Congress should continue to support and encourage manufacturing employment for veterans.
  • He stated that Congress should invest in the development of technical education programs targeted at the interests and skills of young people.

 Michael Cartney

  • Colonel Cartney stated that this nation’s focus on post-secondary education does not align with its current workforce needs.
  • He stated that 80% of jobs in 2025 will require a post-secondary credential short of a four-year degree, yet we continue to push four-year degrees.
  • Colonel Cartney stated that many companies are having to turn down large contracts or forgo expansion because they could not find properly skilled workers.
  • He stated that South Dakota has worked to close skills gap by implementing training programs as a feature of academic institutions, adding that an effort to tighten the relationship between education and industry should exist nationwide.
  • He also stated society’s image of the manufacturing industry needs to be dramatically improved.
  • He stated that the expense of four-year college should be alleviated in exchange for work commitments, adding that technical students should have access to more grants.

 Jay Neely

  • Neely stated that his organization focuses on four categories to improve manufacturing employment efforts: preK-12 education, technical school engagement, military engagement, and recruiting.
  • He added that it is essential to spread awareness that many manufacturing jobs exist which are personally and financially rewarding.
  • He stated that parents need to understand college is not the only high-quality option available for their children.

 Judith Marks

  • Marks stated the modern manufacturing industry requires new technical skills that simply weren’t necessary in the previous generations workforce environment, adding that students need STEM to learn many of those skills.
  • She stated that Siemens is providing German style apprenticeship in the U.S. market, wherein students are provided with on-the-job training through their community college partners.
  • Marks stated that students also need to learn technical skills such as how to run a digital grid, adding that Siemens has invested in a program which does exactly that.
  • She stated that Siemens will soon double the size of its apprenticeship program in the US, providing an additional two billion dollars in software for training/education, and hire thousands of more veterans.


Chairman John Thune (R-SD)

Tell me why you think it’s important to expose young people to that kind of hands on learning.

  • Ratzenberger: Many of the greatest inventors in history lacked the kind of standard education that schools currently provide. However, the brain is formed between zero and five years old, so by the time these kids graduate high school, if they haven’t acquired a technical skillset and intrigue, it becomes much less likely that they ever will.

Can you discuss how new technology is contributing to the skills gap and address what steps can be taken to alleviate the related challenges.

  • Colonel Cartney: Technology isn’t changing the number of workers we need; it’s changing the types of workers we need. If you replace a human with a robot because it can do a gob more efficiently, then you now need a person to manage and potentially repair that robot.

How would you address the challenges faced by the manufacturing industry when it comes to attracting new employees as an alternative to college?

  • Colonel Cartney: When you compare the average salary of a welder to someone with a business degree, the individual with a degree will probably have a slight edge. However, if someone has the natural skill set to be a great welder, they may excel in the manufacturing industry more than they ever would in business.

 Bill Nelson (D-FL)

What can we do to make manufacturing more attractive to young people?

  • Colonel Cartney: First and foremost, exposure is key. We see the greatest results in attracting new laborers by teaching to them what options are available within the American workforce. Secondly, grants and funding are also important tools that make training options more viable for many people.

 Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI)

I’m working on a legislative proposal to establish a grant program that will help launch and scale registered apprenticeships in targeted industries like advanced manufacturing and construction.  Would you agree that exposure is the most important factor in attracting new laborers to the industry?

  • Ratzenberger: Exposure and marketing. Since the 1960s the media has denigrated manual laborers, portraying them as intellectually inferior to their peers. If you want to change public perception about that kind of work, Hollywood is the place to start.

 Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV)

Are any of your companies involved in teaching robotics to elementary school students?

  • Ratzenberger: There’s a company based in Pittsburg, Kansas called Pitsco, and they provide most of the STEM equipment nationwide.
  • Marks: While we do host Siemens Science Days, what we’ve found is that most of that training happens locally from our employees that feel a calling to contribute to their community.

I am of the belief that out of work coal miners should be able to transition quite seamlessly into the aerospace industry. Would you agree with this assumption?

  • Neely: Absolutely. While I’ve never been in a coal mine, I know the mining process exploits a lot of sophisticated equipment, which would certainly benefit other industries.

 Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN)

What is Turner’s Youth Force 2020 Program doing to support women?

  • DeJohn: Through that program we have a minimum requirement of 35% for women and minorities and most years we have been able to exceed that quota.

Can you please explain how utilizing an apprenticeship model of employment has benefitted Siemens?

  • Marks: Apprenticeships don’t just provide employment to new laborers, they also enable us to provide skilled laborers with the opportunity to continue their education should they choose to do so.

 Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV)

How are you and your companies addressing the gender-wage gap?

  • Marks: We do our best to attract the most skilled laborers we can, and in order to expand the available network of trained professionals, we have created a technical scholarship that provides academic opportunities to many women and minorities.
  • DeJohn: I don’t believe that within Turner we have a gender-wage gap. We are very conscientious about that issue.

 Senator Ed Markey (D-MA)

How do you feel about encouraging students to pursue app development as a gateway to technical skills training?

  • Ratzenberger: Anything helps, but it’s important to strike a balance. There’s no denying the importance of computer skills. However, you also don’t want to disregard the role using your hands plays on mental development.

 Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK)

What have you learned through developing relationships with technical colleges?

  • Neely: Our biggest mistake starting out was failing to look at the bigger picture, and spending too much time focusing on the needs of a particular industry sector or training program.

 Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL)

Do you believe small and medium sized businesses can establish apprenticeship programs?

  • Marks: As long as you’re playing a role in setting the curriculum, I believe apprenticeships are a valuable asset that can be easily scaled.

 Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA)

Do you think it would be a good idea to create a federal incentive for apprenticeships?

  • Colonel Cartney: It could be beneficial, but think the most important step we need to take is raising public awareness.

 Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT)

Do you believe the federal government needs to invest more heavily in manufacturing?

  • Ratzenberger: Absolutely. I know a gentleman who was searching for twenty welders in New York, but had to fly all the way to Argentina to employ a single one. It is essential that we reorient our education system to focus on a certain level of manual skills.