Viewpoints: Workforce Development and Enrichment
When discussing the challenges facing American manufacturers, the shortage of skilled workers is almost always near the top of the list. Due to many factors, fewer and fewer young people are seeking careers in manufacturing. Often, new hires possess no practical experience or relevant education, and must be trained on the job. For many shops, this problem can go so far as to constrain their capacity, impacting profitability and growth.
The problem of a general shortage of skilled workers is further compounded by a rapidly accelerating rate of technology advancement. Maintaining a competitive edge requires constantly integrating new technologies to improve productivity and cost effectiveness. Successful implementation of these innovations requires training and education, even for the most experienced operators.
While both the market and technology have evolved dramatically, training programs have usually failed to adapt to the times. Courses, whether offered by a manufacturer, machine tool builder, or other third party, are typically presented in a very traditional classroom setting. Unfortunately, this approach is proving to be increasingly inadequate to counter the skilled workforce dilemma. Building the workforce of tomorrow will require a model of education that harnesses technology to meet the needs of today's manufacturer.
The traditional classroom model lacks the flexibility required to overcome the growing skills gap. Production demands constantly change, making it difficult, if not impossible, to adhere to a strict class schedule. Most manufacturers simply cannot afford to send employees to several days of training, when a shift in workflow might necessitate their presence on the shop floor. Going forward, training must be flexible, adapting to operators' schedules rather than dictating them.
Another restriction of the classroom environment is its inability to meet the varying needs of the individual. Because each person's knowledge and rate of learning are different, the pace of a classroom will always be either too fast or too slow for some. This creates a dilemma in which some students will fail to keep up, while others will be forced to sit through instruction on topics they have already mastered. New models of education must improve responsiveness to each individual's needs.
Lastly, today's training courses must be immersive, capturing and holding a student's attention. The current generation of young people has grown up surrounded by technology, and it is a regular and expected part of their lives. By using it to present an engaging format for learning, one can achieve much greater success in keeping their interest.
Our company relied upon these principles when we developed Education On Demand, an online virtual classroom provided by our training enterprise, Mori Seiki University. Courses are presented online and are available at any time, allowing operators to participate when the flow of work allows it. Each segment ends with a test that requires a perfect score for the student to continue. Furthermore, the test can be taken at any point during the course. This allows operators already well-versed in a topic to progress quickly, while ensuring that beginners gain a thorough understanding of the subject being covered.
Education On Demand also uses technology to create a highly immersive environment. Courses are populated with virtual machines that behave like their real-world counterparts. As commands are entered on the virtual CNC, the machine on a student's screen responds realistically. This simulation is not dissimilar from the video games played by many young people today. It adds an air of familiarity and holds the user's attention.
By presenting courses through a vehicle of this sort, another benefit is attained. In the past, the installation of a newly purchased machine was typically followed by several days of on-site operator training. While this type of hands-on training is still necessary, the new model allows education to begin as soon as a machine has been purchased. This empowers operators with a familiarity and understanding of a new machine, even before it enters the shop. On-site training is then highly productive, focusing on specifics of the customer's application, rather than only on the basics of machine operation.
Workforce development and enrichment is a vital issue that will only increase in importance in the future.To counter the current shortage of skilled workers, there must be a steadfast dedication to the evolution and improvement of training platforms. This responsibility lies with everyone in the industry, be it machine tool builders, machine shops, or trade schools. By integrating technology into our approach, we can ensure the future success of American manufacturing.
This article was first published in the March 2008 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.