MADISON — Employers and others worried about the “skills gap” for years, often lamenting that workers weren’t prepared to perform the jobs for which they were hired.

Tom Still

Still

Forget about the skills gap. The overriding concern in Wisconsin and many other states is a “quantity gap,” meaning there simply aren’t enough working-age people to go around — skilled or otherwise.

That message was reinforced at a recent meeting of the Tech Council Innovation Network in Madison, where the chief economist for the state’s labor department and a project leader for an arm of the Manpower Group, talked about the depth of the problem and one emerging solution.

Dennis Winters, the chief economist for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Department, and Ryan Stultz of Manpower’s Experis arm agreed workforce growth will be less than one-half of 1 percent during the next 20 years. That’s because the population is aging, Baby Boomers are retiring and there aren’t enough young workers in the pipeline to take their places.

Winters likened the situation to a high-school football team with eight players instead of 11 on the field at any given time. No matter how skilled those eight may be, he said, they can’t compete in an 11-player game.

“It’s going to get worse,” added Stultz, who noted 21 percent of manufacturing workers will retire in the next eight years and 24 percent of manufacturing workers are 55 or older.

Meanwhile, employers say the technical requirements for workers are growing as factory-floor automation, maintenance of sophisticated equipment, interaction with engineering and software changes and improved diagnostic testing becomes the order of the day.

Finding and training workers in a world increasingly defined by the Internet of Things, robotics and artificial intelligence is never easy — and it’s made harder if the pipeline is smaller.

One approach taking shape through a project supported by Manpower and Rockwell Automation, both Milwaukee-based, is the Academy of Advanced Manufacturing. It has the ambitious goal of training 1,000 returning military veterans per year for the kinds of high-tech production jobs the market craves.

The first cohort of workers will graduate in November from a 12-week course at a Rockwell site in Ohio. Another round will start in January in Milwaukee. Course offerings include industrial automation, controllers, networks, visualization and information software, drives and motors, instrumentation and machine and plant floor safety. There’s also a professional skills training component that helps ease the transition to civilian life.

Why veterans? About 175,000 leave the military each year and the experience generally equips them to be disciplined, reliable, apt to solve problems and work well within a team. Many also come with core technical skills that can translate to the private sector with training.

Winters said targeted programs such as the advanced manufacturing academy make sense because they can leverage an under-utilized source of talent — such as military veterans — and quickly produce people who are ready to work their first day on the job.

“If you’re not already recruiting veterans, give it a second look,” Winters said.

The academy is basically a free program for those who apply and are selected, Stultz said. The application process will begin later this year. Learn more here: http://tinyurl.com/yae5atpz

The academy has the backing of Rockwell Automation’s chief executive officer, Blake Moret, as well as Jonas Prising, the chairman and chief executive officer for Manpower. While not directly born from the Wisconsin campaign to recruit Foxconn Technology Group to Racine County, it’s part of a larger effort to ensure there are enough workers to meet Foxconn’s needs over time. As Stultz noted, Foxconn has a “hard buy-in” to the academy.

Despite dire warnings of a coming “robocalypse,” in which robots displace workers by the millions, Manpower predicts there will be 3.5 million new jobs in U.S. manufacturing by 2027. There is no single solution for filling those jobs, but innovative partnerships such as the Academy of Advanced Manufacturing can help.

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

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