Money & Business

Need Skills to Pay the Bills? Associations Can Help

By / Oct 10, 2013 (Vstock/Thinkstock

A new book by two association professionals explores the role professional societies and trade associations can play in helping to close America’s growing skills gap.

How do you get young workers interested in manufacturing jobs? This is an issue facing the Precision Machine Products Association, which last week addressed this topic as well as the manufacturing skills gap during a visit to one of its member companies.

“As an association we’re trying to promote manufacturing as a career,” PMPA Executive Director Michael Duffin told the Mansfield News Journal.

During a tour of precision machine shop Rable Machine, Inc., Duffin addressed the discrepancy in the high unemployment rate and the inability of some manufacturing companies to find skilled labor, which Rable’s CEO echoed.

“We’re struggling to find people,” Scott Carter, Rable CEO, told the Mansfield News Journal. “We get a lot of applications, but they’re just not skilled in the areas they need to be. We’re looking for people who took initiative and got some training.”

What would happen if we could give millions of Americans access to training, education, and career support resources developed and run by these associations? What if we used these programs as vehicles to get people back to work?

To help close the gap, Rable is working with local schools to help train students and place them with manufacturing companies. It’s also working on creating an internal apprenticeship program.

For its efforts, PMPA is not only engaging members in discussions around the issue, but it’s working at a national level participating last week in National Manufacturing Day, a coordinated industry effort to promote what manufacturing is and is not.

Manufacturing isn’t the only industry where associations could play a role in helping to close the skills gap. In their new book  A+ Solution: How America’s Professional Societies and Trade Associations Can Solve the Nation’s Workforce Skills Crisis, John Bell, founder and CEO of online-career-center provider Boxwood Technology, Inc., and Christine Smith, Boxwood president and COO, suggest leveraging the professional development offerings of the tens of thousands of U.S. professional societies and trade associations to help alleviate the gap across all of America’s workforce.

Bell and Smith’s suggested solution comes at an appropriate time. A new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that Americans are behind much of the developed world when it comes to mathematical and technical skills.

Among the roughly 166,000 adults aged 16-65 surveyed in 24 countries and sub-national regions, those in the United States on average ranked near the middle in literacy and near the bottom of the pack in numeracy (what the study defined as the ability to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information) and technology skills, The New York Times reported. (Japan and Finland ranked number one and number two in average scores in all three fields.)

The study also found a significantly wide skills gap between employed and unemployed Americans, and it found that Americans who had not graduated high school had significantly worse skills than their international counterparts.

“These kinds of differences in skill sets matter a lot more than they used to, at every level of the economy,” Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, told the Times. “Americans were always willing to accept a much higher level of inequality than other developed countries because there was upward mobility, but we’ve lost a lot of ground to other countries on mobility because people don’t have these skills.”

How can associations help to close the gap?

Bell and Smith make the case that by playing a greater role in workforce-development programs and regional economic-development initiatives, associations can help bolster current skills and workforce training systems.

“Across the U.S., over 70,000 nonprofit professional societies and trade associations focus on gathering and disseminating research and education for their field,” Bell and Smith write. “What would happen if we could give millions of Americans access to training, education, and career support resources developed and run by these associations? What if we used these programs as vehicles to get people back to work? Imagine filling current skills gaps across occupations, job titles, and industry sectors by leveraging the power of trusted organizations that have been on top of their fields for years.”

What needs to happen for this to be a reality? More conversation and partnership among associations, government officials, lawmakers, and employers, Bell and Smith write. “Through collaboration and communication, government entities and associations can build a strong foundation of ongoing support that can be tapped by individuals for career self-management and used by employers for workforce development.”

The authors list several actions associations can take to help create more collaboration, including:

  • invite professional societies and trade associations to partner in local, state, regional, or industry-specific economic development initiatives.
  • advocate for allowing individuals eligible for Workforce Investment Act or other workforce-development programs to use funds to pay for association certifications, conferences, products, and services.
  • propose, cosponsor, or advocate for legislation adding associations to the list of potential Eligible Training Providers under the WIA.

How do you think associations can better collaborate with government officials and lawmakers to help close America’s skills gap? Let us know in the comments.

Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. More »

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