Results from a new survey underscore the need for employers to elicit employee opinions and use them in decision making.

2012 is a big year for the U.S. workforce, with an impending election hinging on critical issues such as feeding the economy, growing national jobs, and closing the skills gap. The sector most in need of skilled workers, the manufacturing industry, continues to keep politicians, economists, and employers up at night.

A recent Washington Post article reports that the manufacturing workforce shrank by a third of its size during the past decade, with a loss of nearly 4 million jobs. Some economists believe this decline is due to rapid growth in manufacturing productivity during the past 50 years, while others claim U.S. factories failed to hold their own amid global competition and rising imports.

Many manufacturing employers have a different outlook, however. They see a need not to "bring the jobs back," but rather, to find the workers with the necessary skills to fill open positions.

Why has such great job loss not yielded a surplus of skilled factory workers? According to the Washington Post article, automation has transformed factories and altered the skills needed to successfully operate and maintain equipment.

As the economy recovers and jobs return to the United States, laid-off workers who filled factories years ago are often unqualified for today's manufacturing roles. Additionally, Baby Boomers continue to retire, and younger generations entering the workforce are not choosing manufacturing as a vocation due to the type of work it requires and the growing perception that the sector is doomed.

Despite differing opinions about how manufacturing became what it is today, most experts agree that job-specific training is vital to the industry's health and ultimate survival, and many factories are adapting their hiring tactics accordingly. For example, some employers hire untrained candidates who have the inclination to work with their hands and then train them, often through apprenticeship programs.

In a recent Software Advice Blog post, Derek Singleton, an enterprise resource planning analyst, suggests three ways the United States can work to overcome the manufacturing skills deficit: strengthen educational partnerships, invest in corporate in-house training programs, and energize the workforce of tomorrow. "The first two strategies will help manufacturers overcome the problem of hiring a capable workforce in the near-term. Meanwhile, energizing youth about pursuing a manufacturing career will help create a supply of workers for the long-term," he says.