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Combatting the Skills Gap By Empowering Underrepresented Communities

minority workers in a manufacturing facility
Credit: iStock/kali9

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) 2019 1st Quarter Manufacturers' Outlook Survey found that 71.3% of the U.S. manufacturers surveyed cited the inability to attract and retain skilled workers as their top challenge for the sixth consecutive year the survey was administered. Analysts have called it a “full-blown workforce crisis.”

I recently had the privilege of attending a meeting hosted by Catalyst Connection, part of the Pennsylvania MEP and the MEP National NetworkTM, on opportunities to expand diversity and inclusion in manufacturing while simultaneously addressing the lack of skilled workers. Catalyst Connection, inspired by its move to the neighborhood of Hazelwood in the City of Pittsburgh, brought together some of Southwest Pennsylvania’s economic development, workforce development, and educational powerhouses along with local advanced manufacturers to discuss the pockets of poverty that persist despite the area’s booming manufacturing industry.

Dr. Deborah Stine of Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy Analysis & Education, LLC presented on her study of programs to connect underemployed workers from underrepresented groups and disadvantaged populations to manufacturing jobs. The findings revealed that an inadequate understanding of manufacturing, inappropriate training, and lack of career-counseling were hurdles to filling the thousands of manufacturing jobs available in the region.

Petra Mitchell, Catalyst Connection President and CEO, facilitated a lively discussion about Dr. Stine’s study and existing resources to address these challenges. When asked to explore potential solutions to the issues, discussion participants agreed on a dual-pronged approach that addresses the immediate need for skilled labor by engaging underemployed and underserved residents and ensures a robust pipeline of manufacturing labor in the future by working with students.

Filling the Gap

NAM highlights the need for up-skilling, vocational education, and veterans' hiring programs to help fill vacant U.S. manufacturing jobs. One group that is often excluded from these recommendations is the large population of minorities and underemployed individuals across the country. According to the personal finance group, The Balance, “a person is considered underemployed when they are working at a job for which they are over-qualified, working part-time when they would prefer full-time work, or working at a low-wage job when they could, if jobs were available, be working more hours.” Causes of underemployment include lack of skills, lack of relevant work experience, unaccepted credentials, and discrimination to name a few. Underemployment disproportionately affects women and minority groups. The African American Policy Forum suggests, “…this disproportionate effect [among women and minorities] may be attributed to historical discrepancies in hiring patterns and discrimination within the labor market.”

Dr. Stine’s study noted that manufacturers are competing not just with one another but, in certain markets, with mining and construction companies that also offer “good jobs” for qualified workers. The Brookings Institute defines “good jobs” as those that pay a middle-class wage and provide job benefits. In this increasingly competitive environment, manufacturers must consider non-traditional labor pools when filling manufacturing jobs.

A Win-Win for Manufacturers and Underrepresented Communities

The fact that the skills of the existing workforce do not align with the needs of today’s manufacturers complicates attracting and retaining skilled workers. This is often referred to as the manufacturing skills gap. According to IndustryWeek, a leading manufacturing trade publication, effective training is widely acknowledged as the key to mitigating the impact of a widening skills gap in manufacturing. Many companies, however, struggle with training and are no closer to resolving this urgent issue.

In an article entitled “A Bold Plan to Address the Region’s Workforce Shortage”, Dr. Quintin Bullock, head of the Community College of Allegheny County and participant in the Catalyst Connection discussion, presented steps the region could take to create a “productive and effective job pipeline.” Many of the steps he outlined were discussed at the meeting, including industry-driven career path mapping, developing regional workforce programs, and providing services for workers who are attempting to upskill to move into manufacturing jobs.

Catalyst Connection recognizes that by leveraging the working populations in local, underrepresented, and underserved communities, manufacturers can address the need for qualified workers. Successfully doing so would be equally beneficial for manufacturers and for workers. The meeting attendees committed to work together to identify and leverage existing resources and plan next steps to integrate Dr. Stine’s research findings into best practices in the field across the MEP National Network.

Steps to Resolving A Historical Problem

It is important to realize the historical context around the lack of understanding about manufacturing and manufacturing careers that Dr. Stine noted in her study. Decades of high unemployment followed the closure of Pittsburgh’s steel mills. In many cases, closures meant that the workers who educated their children and friends about manufacturing and acted as leaders and role models in their communities were unemployed and unable to find new jobs. There was no reason to share information about jobs that no longer existed, causing perceptions of manufacturing careers as unstable to continue. As manufacturing has made its return, it has often done so in the suburbs rather than urban areas, leading to a lack of engagement, access, and opportunity among the urban workforce.

My interest in Catalyst Connection’s work is not only because of my role as a NIST MEP Partnership Manager. I am also a former resident of Hazelwood who witnessed the rapid deterioration of a thriving area when the mills closed. Kudos to Catalyst Connection for spearheading this effort. The workforce they are attempting to engage includes my family and friends. Yes, many of them are minorities; most are underrepresented; and, many are underemployed, but mostly they are people who would relish the opportunity to, once again, become part of Pittsburgh’s burgeoning manufacturing workforce.


Prior to his untimely passing, Tab Wilkins, the late Director of Impact Washington, the MEP Center in Washington, often helped me develop ideas for blogs that focused on diversity and inclusion. This is a topic I feel passionate about and one that MEP Centers, as noted here, are working to address. This blog is dedicated to Tab and the countless ways his hard work and determination made a difference at NIST MEP and across the MEP National Network.

About the author

Sunni Massey

Sunni Massey is an Industrial Specialist at NIST. She is a certified project manager and experienced federal economic development professional. 

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