As I was preparing remarks for this month’s Food Automation & Manufacturing Conference, I came across an Association for Manufacturing Excellence research study on the challenges facing manufacturing. One of the study’s key findings is that America’s education system has not adapted to changed priorities around the world, causing the US to lose jobs to nations with more tech-savvy workers such as China and India. The missing educational links here at home are lack of emphasis on math, physics, engineering and technical knowledge, the study states.

According to the National Association of Manufacturing Institute 2011 Skills Gap study, more than 80 percent of manufacturers have a moderate to serious shortage of skilled production workers, and 5 percent of all manufacturing jobs (600,000 jobs) are open because there is no qualified talent.

For nearly 20 years, Food Engineering has covered the dire need for skilled workers in its annual State of Food Manufacturing articles. Skills training of both line operators and line supervisors has been considered by FE readers as a great need to improve plant productivity for as long as I can remember. Today, the need extends to skilled training for maintenance workers.

The good news is more training options and community college-level curricula are available compared to a decade ago. For example, PMMI now offers basic training courses such as Introduction to PLCs, Introduction to Industrial Electricity, a certificate program in mechatronics and others.

While advanced automation often reduces the number of plant floor jobs, skilled workers remain essential. This month’s cover story is about one plant that is pushing the boundaries of automation with a nearly lights-out facility. (See page 67.) The plant’s success, however, still depends on a few highly skilled workers to maintain its uncompromising quality as a McDonald’s supplier.

Leaps in automation truly produce great levels of manufacturing efficiency, but the human touch provided by skilled workers can never be underestimated. For manufacturing excellence to be achieved, it’s a priceless commodity.