In almost any election, one of the big issues is bound to be jobs. Whether they're running for alderman or for president, candidates know that a surefire way to make points with an audience is to promise to make jobs plentiful for all.
Just how might they do that? One radical way might be to work to align high school course offerings with industry's hiring needs. Because—and here's some really big news—there's a severe shortage of qualified workers in America—for industry in general, and for material handling in particular.
The situation is getting worse by the year. Virginia Wheeler, executive director of the Material Handling Industry of America's (MHIA) Education Foundation, says the material handling industry will be "50 percent short in terms of the employees needed [in the nation's warehouses and factories] by 2010."
"Our industry is begging for people," adds Dan Quinn, president of material handling equipment maker Vertical Systems International and vice president for education for MHIA. Why is that? "Some areas place so much emphasis on college that students in a trade are made to feel inferior," he says. "A lot of schools measure themselves on the percentage of students who go on to college. Schools should embrace the concept that non-college-bound students are still valuable contributors to the economy and society."
Steve VanNostrand, vice president of human resources for lift-truck maker Raymond Corp., agrees that more could be done at the high school level to prepare students for careers in industry. The challenge is to "get people who are interested in industry; people with core skills like reading blueprints and understanding modern machine technology," he says. "Finding young people like that is a challenge."
A significant part of the problem, of course, is simple lack of awareness. "The biggest challenge is not so much the quality of the students as awareness of career opportunities in transportation and logistics," says Elise Leeson, director of human resources for transportation and logistics company Averitt Express.
She recalls a meeting with guidance counselors in which she asked whether they had ever suggested a career in transportation to their students. None had. "After sharing information about the types of opportunities available," she recalls, "a couple of the counselors asked if they could be considered!"
Alan Howie, author of the book Fundamentals of Warehousing and Distribution, agrees that raising awareness is the primary challenge. "Yes, there is an issue with lack of skills at the secondary school level," he says, "but the essential problem is we have to get the message out there that …work in the material handling industry is much more than a manual labor job. It's a career in a high-tech industry. Our challenge is to build awareness of all of this in the schools and colleges."
So what's being done right now? MHIA and a number of companies in the industry are reaching out to high schools to raise awareness of their critical employment needs. But there's only so much private industry can do. Think how much more could be accomplished if companies could get their government representatives involved.
Wouldn't it be nice if our thousands of politicians heard about all of this and decided to look into the crisis in industrial hiring? That way, they could take steps to address the critical skills shortage in our industry and help reduce unemployment at the same time. Sounds like a winning campaign strategy to me.