Expand the STEM Dialogue to ‘The Forgotten Middle Half’

As a nation, we need to expand our dialogue around STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills and education. Automation World Publisher Jim Chrzan is doing it in the June 2012 Automation World cover story. But there is another area I think we ought to expand into.

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Too much of the STEM message is directed to students who are at the top of their class, and who are already headed to four-year or higher college programs. But college-degreed engineers don’t operate or maintain manufacturing plants—people with high school diplomas, skill certificates and community college degrees do. These people need STEM skills as much or more than the university-bound student, but they are often left out of programs that are aimed at advanced placement (AP) students.

These students have been referred to as “the forgotten middle half.” We need to change our national dialogue about higher education to encourage the middle half of students to seek educational credentials that lead to the high-demand, high-paying, gold-collar jobs upon which our future manufacturing base will be built.

If we do not fill this pipeline with operators, technicians and maintenance staff required of a world-class manufacturing plant, we can guarantee that those jobs will go elsewhere. And along with those manufacturing jobs will go the U.S. standard of living.

Dr. Jill Biden, wife of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, understands the value of community college education. Last month she visited Pennsylvania and the Reading Area Community College (RACC) to hear directly from students and manufacturing executives about how a practical program in industrial maintenance and mechatronics is preparing workers for family-sustaining-wage jobs—and enabling U.S. manufacturers to remain competitive. 

New data
Data just developed by a colleague and me show that, whereas the average compensation for the U.S. workforce is $52,000, it is much higher in all major segments of manufacturing:  $97,000 in the processes industries; $78,000 in discrete industries; and $62,000 in hybrid industries. These numbers, if known, should be enough to get students to think about manufacturing as a career.

The RACC program has trained hundreds of students in for-credit courses aimed at creating the multi-skilled technicians necessary to maintain a modern packaging plant. Education topics include mechanical systems, electrical systems, fluid power systems, programmable controllers, computer programming, computer networking, process control, motion control, sensors and the integration of all of these areas to produce mechatronic packaging machines for industry.

You don’t open the book on any of these topics without a good grasp of science and math.

>> Click here to find 2012 The Automation Conference coverage.

The Industrial Maintenance Training Center of Pennsylvania (IMTCPA) and the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI) have been at the forefront of preparing schools to teach the necessary topics, and providing appropriate credentials for students who show mastery in these topics. Together, these organizations created a mechatronics competency model that has been adopted by the U.S. Department of Labor.

IMTCPA has audited schools across Pennsylvania and has certified nine to offer various levels of the Advanced Manufacturing Integrated Systems Technology Credential. PMMI has completed three of a broad series of tests that measure the same skills, based upon the competency model, and offer PMMI credentials to those who pass the tests. Both groups are working to expand the programs to schools across the country.

The unfortunate part for most schools is that the majority of students who participate in these programs are coming from industry to upgrade their skills. Some are coming after having received a Bachelors degree in an area that did not lead to meaningful employment. We need to do better at attracting the forgotten middle half directly into these STEM-oriented programs, either during or immediately following high school.

>> Simon Nance, manager of training and development at STIHL, provides a case study on manufacturing training at the 2012 Automation Conference. Visit http://bit.ly/tac010

Keith Campbell, kc@ontheedgeblog.com, writes about packaging operations, management and leadership at www.onthedgeblog.com.

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