A skilled workforce will drive manufacturing growth

Improving workforce development is vital to the continuing growth in manufacturing, particularly when it comes to education

06/17/2013


As the nation emerges from the 2012 election cycle, voters, legislators, and pundits on both sides continue to address how best to spur growth of U.S. manufacturing. The takeaway is that there is clearly bipartisan support for initiatives to advance manufacturing. Many domestic manufacturing sectors took serious hits during the economic slowdown. Despite setbacks, a recent industry survey indicated almost 80% of manufacturing companies polled projected an uptick in production this coming year. As manufacturing slowly recovers, there remains significant room for improvement, particularly in the area of workforce development.

There are roughly 600,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in the U.S. right now. Despite unemployment rates hovering at 8% and millions of unemployed job seekers, many manufacturers are hard-pressed to fill critical-need factory and plant positions. Even prior to the economic downturn there were challenges finding qualified workers.

As a result of this workforce gap, manufacturing jobs often remain unfilled for lengthy periods. Persistent shortages in skilled manufacturing labor have forced some manufacturers to curtail production and defer expansion plans. With more baby boomers retiring, manufacturers are striving to fill positions while competing for a dwindling workforce of individuals who often lack necessary education and training.

As modern manufacturing operations trend toward automation, IT and other technologies, the U.S. education system has fallen increasingly out of synch with workplace demands. The expansion of global markets and global manufacturing ratchets up competition among manufacturers. This raises customer expectations while also raising the bar on a lean manufacturing workforce.

Currently, the onus of responsibility for workplace education and training falls increasingly on the shoulders of employers. Corporations seeking to grow must strive to bridge the gap in skilled labor by providing beneficial training programs that may range from entry-level job skills to advanced technology programs. Moving forward, it is important for government, industry, and academia to cooperate and collaborate in developing a trained workforce with the skill sets necessary to allow the nation’s manufacturing economy to grow.

Posting the availability of a manufacturing job typically yields a stream of resumes. Yet, remarkably few applicants possess even the most fundamental manufacturing skill sets. Take for example an entry-level line worker who may be required to access an SAP application, read a bill of materials, assemble a product, and use sophisticated tools for calibration, inspection, and configuration, examples of many of the skills often lacking in job candidates.

The hiring task becomes exponentially more challenging when filling vacant positions requiring specialized expertise, such as soldering, metal cutting, or machining. As domestic manufacturing demand and productivity diminished, many of these and other essential manufacturing skills were phased out of technical and collegiate training programs. 

Refocusing on skills

Revitalization of these core skills is an important component to facilitate growth in advanced manufacturing. Corporations and the public sector can contribute toward the revitalization by partnering with community and technical colleges willing to bring manufacturing fundamentals back into the curriculum. Today’s technicians working on the plant floor often need a broader range of skills than in the past—from mechanical assembly to navigating a workstation computer to operating electronic test equipment.

Additionally, industry has continued trending toward automation in order to optimize production and profits. The automation and robotics field has generated a sizeable segment of some higher paying engineering and plant-level jobs. In some cases, traditional manufacturing specialties such as electrical, mechanical, computer science, and industrial engineering are being supplanted by programs that introduce a broader, cross-discipline blend of electrical, mechanical, and computer expertise—or, as it’s known within industry, mechatronics.

The addition of new motion control technologies is a win-win long term, but has the short-term effect of compounding the challenges of finding employees with the right blend of experience in mechanical labor, motion control, and technology. The pool of qualified applicants grows narrower moving up the corporate ladder to mid-level production managers, quality managers, and manufacturing engineers.

A 2012 report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology estimates a deficit of one million science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professionals graduating over the course of the next decade. Furthermore, the council found that nearly 60% of students enter college lacking the math skills needed to pursue STEM majors, thereby limiting their career options and earning potential, while concurrently costing colleges and universities $2 billion annually on remedial developmental education for underprepared students.

A strong manufacturing economy inarguably requires the support of an educated workforce. As an industry, it is imperative to prevent further deterioration of the manufacturing foundation, which is truly embodied in the workforce. Rigorous and innovative STEM initiatives and college degree programs prime the pipeline to advance U.S. manufacturing, while engaging young people on a successful and stable career trajectory with good potential earnings.

While wages for U.S. manufacturing workers with no formal education have declined overall, wages for manufacturing jobs in high technology and robotics fields have risen. PCAST estimates that high technology workers earn about 50% to 100% more than average workers in manufacturing. Furthermore, the council recommends fostering robust, high-value jobs in the manufacturing of products using advanced technologies and processes.

Involvement by academia is an essential ingredient to generate student interest and boost graduation rates of qualified candidates needed to meet demand. Every vocational, community college, and university program in manufacturing should require a comprehensive understanding and hands-on practicum experience in diverse plant and factory machinery and processes. Engineering programs need greater emphasis on the graduate’s transition to a manufacturing career.



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