The Skills Gap Dilemma: To Train or To Hire?

February 26, 2020 2:18 pm

Finding qualified labor is the number one hurdle for the metalworking industry, according to a recent survey conducted by Practical Machinist and SME. Three quarters of metalworking professionals emphasized the importance for their company to add talent. On top of that, almost 60% of respondents argued that it is extremely challenging for their companies to do so.

And everyone’s talking about the skills gap, with their own conclusions about how to solve it.  Not only is the older generation retiring, but they are expected to pass the baton to a generation they struggle to connect with, particularly because of both their and understanding of technology.

According to the same survey, out of the top five core industry challenges, four are employee-related. From retaining and finding qualified employees to employee competence and upskilling, this is undeniably where the focus and concern of our industry lies. So, what do we make of this information? What do we do about the skills gap dilemma?

It’s striking to consider that despite the agreement among respondents on two subjects – finding qualified labor and employee training as the most critical success factors of their business – only 36% of participants’ companies have invested in employee education or training in the past year.

The complaint that qualified labor isn’t knocking on your door may very well be a valid one. But take a moment to ask yourselves what breeds qualified labor? Training. And how many companies actually invest in employee training? Not that many. And might we add, 69% of our respondent admitted to not participating in any sort of apprenticeship programs. See where we’re going with this? You get what you give.


“Hire intelligent people and stop micromanaging them, let them innovate and enable them. Lack of freedom and innovation completely deteriorates any value of “qualified labor.” This is one of the largest mistakes made by companies that lead to failure. People don’t leave jobs, they leave employers” (Rob Tessier).”


We can’t help but point out what appears to be an overlooked connection between upskilling employees and finding qualified labor. Perhaps the solution to both of these issues is the same. Maybe it’s time to redefine “qualified labor.“ Why? Because the current definition is satisfying an industry taboo, one we should work to dismiss. It’s time to get rid of the negativity associated with training employees, especially new hires. It’s time to invest in the workforce. It’s time to reward teachability.

Kord Kozma of Nidec Press & Automation; Hernán Luis y Prado of Workshops for Warriors; Rob Tessier of Airgas; and Dean Steadman of FANUC America Corp. discuss the skilled labor crisis on the main stage at FABTECH.

Here are a few related insights we heard from a brilliant panel at FABTECH discussing how we can build tomorrow’s workforce…

Rob Tessier, National Director of Advanced Fabrication Technologies at Airgas, described the industry paranoia around training new people in fear they will get up and leave, but he goes on to beg the impending question of…

“Well, what happens if you don’t train people and they stay.”

Tessier encouraged the audience to think bigger, what are you doing for the industry as a whole, even if they do get up and leave?

From the perspective of Hernán Luis y Prado, Founder and CEO of Workshops for Warriors, he pointed out a lack of industry leadership. Not only should we be concerned with becoming better leaders ourselves, but finding ways to train others to become better leaders.

“Your people are starving for discipline, rigor and leadership. That is something you can provide, and if you can’t…reach out to a veteran. Get a veteran and train them, they are locked on and ready to go. They have leadership and communication; you can put into them the compressed training abilities specifically machining, welding etc.”

These challenges aren’t putting a damper on anyone’s hope. Based on current conditions and recent performance, most respondents have quite the optimistic outlook for 2020. Out of the businesses that reported to be down last year, 42% of them are hopeful things will not worsen this year and may even grow.

Sustaining the rigidity of old thinking and old ways can be comfortable. But we aren’t as stuck in this rigidity as you might believe. About 70% of survey participants certified that their company is embracing change and 81% of the companies who experienced growth, indicated they would additionally be pursuing even more change in the coming year.


About the Metalworking Trends Report

Practical Machinist and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) collaborated on this survey of the U.S. metalworking industry.

The purpose of this research is to gain insights from within the industry regarding perceptions of business conditions, the business environment and the changes that are impacting the industry at an individual company level.

For more information about the status of the metalworking industry download the report here.


  • Johnb53405 says:

    While browsing for information a while back I came across an article in a 1923 Machinist magazine which addressed the same issue. The arguements pro and con on training and wages were the same then as they are today. On the matter of training: it is much more important today than when I got my start (1981). Then, most shop employees were highly skilled. What I see now is a small cadre of skilled people and a multitude of operators. Offer training to those who may desire it and if you treat your staff/employees well then they will stay with you.

  • toolmkr4321 says:

    I agree with Johnb53405, I started in the trade in 1978 the government had a robust apprenticeship program. The company I worked for paid me 4.25 an hour and the government paid half of that! There were 27 journeyman and 7 apprentices.
    they had mold making, die making, tool making and machining. Thank goodness I got my 4 year apprenticeship done before the government suspended the program, because the company I worked for dropped it too! I went on to work for them for 21 years, until they moved to Mexico and China!!! I will be honest, I am still employed in the trade and I love it, but I don’t see any incentive for young people to get in with the wages where they are and the investment in personal tools!!!

  • Stephentool says:

    I worked for a company previously that had an apprenticeship program and I was told I couldn’t enter it because my skills were already at/above that of the graduates. In the end I was training since of the apprentice that came through. I am a firm believer that knowledge should always be shared so I did enjoy my work. But Regardless of what my current skills were that piece of paper makes a big difference in many shops in my area. I was always bitter that I was denied that opportunity and eventually went looking for another shop where I could continue to learn and upscale my skills. I know I still have a plethora to learn in the industry but won’t stop searching for opportunity to grow myself in the trade.

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