Making Manufacturing Cool: Educating and Training the Industrial Workforce

June 8, 2012
This is Part 1 of a three-part series on industrial workforce issues and resources. Part 2 will appear in July 2012 and Part 3 in August 2012.

Finding and training workers is no easy task. While K-12 STEM education is underfunded, there is no current shortage of engineering graduates. So what’s the problem?  Public opinion. Improving manufacturing’s reputation may be the first priority.

With almost 80 percent of our nation’s manufacturers reporting a shortage of skilled workers, according to the Manufacturing Institute, and unemployment hovering above 8 percent, you would think that everyone could see the synergy.

What’s standing in the way is the public’s misperception that manufacturing is an unattractive job choice.  It’s as simple as that.

Why would any 20-year-old student, arguably at their most “idealistic,” regardless of gender or race, want to work at a meat processing plant whose “pink slime” makes it on the global news circuit?  Or want to aspire to go work for BP after watching the Deepwater Horizon oil spill coverage? Or get involved in the hydraulic fracturing controversy or sit around with a group of peers and discussing an interest in nuclear power post-Fukushima?

Then there are the perceptions of personal danger or low-paid drudgery. Why would any 20-year-old study and train for a factory job they believe is not a stable, long-term, lucrative career choice?

After pouring through the data on education, weighing and balancing a lot of contradictory arguments, one thing is clear: Manufacturing suffers from a terrible reputation not based on facts. (In a recent survey, the majority of residents in one town indicated they would welcome a factory “to boost the local economy,” but the majority also clearly stated they would not want their kids to work there!)

Studies of young people’s perceptions show manufacturing suffers from the three D’s—“dirty, dangerous and dark.” Pouring though career discussions in social media, manufacturing jobs are associated with smokestacks,  bad chemicals or dangerous machinery. This is the exact opposite of the clean, safe, automated, modern factory of today.  The reality and the perception are worlds apart.

The good news is this reputation can be fixed, and timing is still good.  And while it is not too late to come up with a solution, the response has to come soon, and at the local level, and it is going to take significant investment in time and dollars—from industry.  The clock is ticking.

>> Click here for a resource of associations looking to change the current reputation of manufacturing.

Despite the fact that this topic of education funding and the future workforce generates a lot of contrary opinions, all agree America’s very economic future is at stake. But there is good news.  Right now “…the United States is still the most innovative country on the planet—great scientists, great engineers, great industries,” according to Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, a private nonprofit institution that provides engineering leadership in service to the nation. 

On a recent edition of National Public Radio’s “Science Friday,” Vest said the problem is that every future indicator is pointing in the wrong direction.  Growing economies around the world, investing heavily in education and research, are making it difficult for the U.S. to retain its leadership position.

Vest says the U.S. government has done a good job starting at the end of the Bush administration, and through the Obama White House, investing in research and development at the university level. Where we have “all fallen down,” said Vest, is K-12 STEM education (kindergarten through high school science, technology, engineering and math), especially targeting minorities like women, African-Americans, Hispanics and American Indians. 
This is a theme throughout the research: Our future manufacturing workforce will come from a more diverse educated labor pool than exists today.

K-12 STEM Education
All kids are curious and natural scientists, and discovery-based learning helps every student, not only future scientists and engineers, develop critical thinking skills and a healthy dose of skepticism, as well as problem-solving skills, team work and hands-on learning abilities.

With funding cuts, such hands-on lab funding is often the first to get trimmed or cut.  While we have to find ways to use technology to lower the cost of education, watching a video of a frog dissection is a poor substitute for the visceral experience of a scalpel wielding dissection—much more likely to inspire you to choose a path in biology or medicine, for instance.

Technology conspires against us in another way.  In the 1950s and ‘60s, much of today’s manufacturing workforce (the Baby Boomers soon to reach retirement age) could fix and rebuild cars, take apart broken radios and televisions, etc.  The ways things are designed today there is no access to most of these products.  In our “throw away” society, broken coffee makers, radios, and the like are discarded instead of fixed or tinkered with.  Opportunities for this “home-based” inspiration are fewer.

How in the world will kids ever get interested in making things if we don’t, at the very local level, peel back the roofs of the industrial parks they pass on the highway and show them safe, modern, automated factories? That points to another clear recommendation for improvement: successful STEM programs need everyday access to scientists or engineers, either coming to the classroom, or through a variety of field trips.

We also  must be careful to entice all our kids. White males are making their way through K-12 STEM programs into engineering higher education.  While 30 percent of high school graduates are white males, these same white males are earning 70 percent of engineering degrees, according to the Office of Naval Research.

The Navy has particular interest in STEM program diversity; due to security issues, it has to hire U.S. citizens.  The U.S. Navy also boasts the biggest basic research budgets in the military and employs 35,000 STEM grads. In the next ten years, half will reach retirement age. “So we can see a time when we will not have enough graduates to fill the spots,” says Michael Kassner, director of research for the Office of Naval Research. (Kassner also appeared on NPR’s Science Friday.) 

The Navy considers middle school “the point of interdiction,” according to Kassner.  The Navy also reaches out to inner city families to bring science into their homes, and often finds they have to first meet basic needs like nutrition, before the kids can be ready to learn, he said.

Using the Navy model and other successful grass-roots examples, industrial companies must continue to reach out at the local level to fund hands-on education and introduce the true image of today’s modern automated factory to youngsters of both genders and all races through field trips and classroom visits. You are planting the seeds you will harvest at a later date. Leave the planting all to government-funded education with the current tax situation, and these programs will continue to be trimmed, cut, compromised, and so on.

Engineering grads
Contrary to popular belief, there is no current shortage of STEM graduates, according to Lindsay Lowell, director of Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration.

While study after study shows the majority of manufacturers say they cannot fill all their positions, there are three times the number of people holding STEM degrees than working in STEM industries, says Lowell. 

According to Lowell, the U.S. Bureau for Labor Statistics, which projects out to the end of the decade, predicts the United States will need 190,000 new hires every year to replace those retiring and to grow industry.  We currently produce more than 500,000 STEM grads each year.  “If you take a dispassionate view,” said Lowell on NPR, “it’s hard to see the evidence of a shortage.”

Even Vest agrees that the unemployment rate for engineers after five years is 2 percent, and 12 of the 15 top-paying jobs is an engineering discipline. So if the engineering grads in the U.S. are plentiful, at least for now, and there are plenty of job openings, you have to conclude these grads just don’t want to go into manufacturing. 

In years past, many of these positions would be filled by immigrants coming to this country—first, to take advantage of our excellent education system and then to stay and practice their profession. Now, there is a clear trend that these future engineering professionals are going back home to start their careers, often enjoying a much more affluent lifestyle than the same salary can afford here.

Vocational school options
While industry can and does lure degreed engineers to fill the growing divide, (especially for the highest paying spots like petroleum engineering), America’s future industry professionals will probably come in increasing numbers from vocational and technical school backgrounds. 

Unlike Baby Boomers who had to adapt to computer technology, today’s students were born with a mouse or joystick in their hands.  “Combine this aptitude with the right vocational training,” says Steve Dwyer, who runs Indiana’s Advanced Manufacturing & Logistics initiative,  “and they become prime candidates for high-paying, hi-tech manufacturing jobs—an especially promising career path for those who aren’t sure they want to pursue a four-year college degree.”

Dwyer wrote an article for the Inside Indiana Business Web site titled, “Changing Perceptions is Job #1 for Manufacturing Growth.”  This gives you a pretty good clue why he thinks jobs remain unfilled.

Dwyer also says, “It’s an unfortunate irony that manufacturing, which has invested more than any industry in new technologies, has been unable to attract the most tech-savvy generation in history.”

Dwyer’s points are reinforced in a 2011 study done by Deloitte for the Manufacturing Institute. In “The Public’s View of the Manufacturing Industry Today,” Deloitte reveals another irony: “Our survey shows significant challenges in the area of public perception, including that while Americans generally hold strong views on the importance of manufacturing, they hold negative views about its future in the U.S.”

That perception, of course, is incorrect, but nobody wants to pursue a career where they believe their job is not secure, and may very well be shipped overseas.  And young people only have to look as far as their parent’s generation for evidence to support this fear.

“While the U.S. public registers a strong belief in the importance of manufacturing…. they place it near the bottom of the list…. contributing to a sense that manufacturing is an unstable long-term career choice,” said Deloitte. 
Industry-specific outreach

A March 30, 2011 article in the Houston Business Journal, trumpeted “Public Perception of Manufacturing Jobs Hurts Houston Companies.” In the piece, writer Molly Ryan tries to dispel the misperception that industrial work equals “assembly lines, smokestacks and minimum wages.”

The article does stress that “San Jacinto community college and other schools…have upped their manufacturing program offerings…and graduates are almost guaranteed manufacturing jobs because of increasing demand.”

This theme is common across the U.S. as local schools respond to industry’s call and work together to meet this growing demand—and this is key—at the grass-roots level. These schools often develop curriculum directly related to the needs of local manufacturers.  What we learn is “manufacturing” as an abstract can’t fix anything.  Local and regional efforts focusing on specific industries work best.

Detroit has to fix automotive manufacturing’s workforce shortage.  The packaging industry is working with local schools to ensure mechatronics skills are being taught to future packaging machine designers, builders and service technicians.
And we all have to work not only to provide the right training, but to make these jobs more attractive.

Ryan quotes Jeff Applegate, president of the Greater Houston Manufacturers Association, who says, “High school and college kids don’t want to work in manufacturing.  Our challenge is to make manufacturing sexy again.”

One sure fire way to make manufacturing “sexier” and to solve the manufacturing workforce shortage is to increase starting salaries.  It’s as simple as that.

Whether to lure engineering grads, or compensate lower-skilled workers to train and elevate their worth, money and job security are the motivating forces.

Petroleum engineering is one area where the salaries have gone up considerably in the past few years, and students are following.  “The market really sends signals,” says Lowell.  “The cyclical flow of students through the engineering pipeline follows wages. You can talk about supply, but you won’t get there until you drive demand.”

Here, perhaps, is the greatest irony of all.  As Walt Staehle, director of business development for process automation vertical markets for Siemens Industry puts it: “We have a technology-wage conundrum: Automation drives out unskilled labor costs, which drives up skill need, which drives up wages.”

As an industry, or in individual companies, can we afford to take on the burden of recruiting at an earlier age through involvement in K-12 STEM education?  Can we afford to work with local schools to develop curriculum choices that will develop the local manufacturing workforce?  And can we afford to lure high-starting-salaried, high-talent engineers away from “cleaner” career choices like information technology, healthcare, telephony, and financial services?

How can we afford not to?

Coming in July 2012. Part 2:  An exclusive survey of Automation World readers.  More than 200 readers tell us how well they were prepared for a career in manufacturing, what their schools could have done better, how they feel about supplier training, and what they would tell kids about a future career.

Coming in August 2012. Part 3Success stories from the field.  An informal look at real-world examples where industry and education have come together to drive the curriculum and recruit our future workforce.

 >> Wireless, Security, OEE and other topics were discused at The Automation Conference.

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