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SME Speaks: Preparing Tomorrow’s Manufacturing Workforce

Throughout my 42-year automotive career, manufacturing has been the very heartbeat, the engine, of the US economy. Yet in 2006, manufacturers continue to face a host of unprecedented challenges. In this time of structural change for US manufacturers, survival depends on being able to meet the demands of intense global competition, customer demands for world pricing, and rapidly escalating domestic production costs. Ultimately, the solution remains the same for every leader: putting people first.

When times are tough, smart leaders invest in their people. With the goal of increasing competitiveness and profitability, manufacturing is known for its innovations, technology, flexibility, and continuous pursuit of efficient productivity. A well-trained, highly skilled workforce is a key part of that equation. Large and small manufacturing companies alike agree that there is a shortage of qualified candidates. The shortage exists across the board, from skilled production and trades applicants to degreed engineering and IT professionals. With an estimated 76 million baby boomers retiring over the next 20 years, there will not be enough skilled workers to go around.

Challenged to stay competitive, smart manufacturers are taking action now to ensure they have skilled employees in the future. World-class companies invest heavily in training employees and developing leaders. These companies develop training plans tailored for each associate, which is how my company refers to its employees. The best curricula offer a mix of technical classes for on-the-job skill-set development; financial and economic classes for profitability awareness; and collaboration for team building.

In 1994, the first thing we did when we formed American Axle & Manufacturing (AAM) was up-armor our workforce with training designed to meet the needs of a transforming and globalizing corporation. We knew that our skill-set development programs had to precede the introduction of new technologies used to replace and modernize the equipment we acquired. AAM realizes that high-tech machinery requires a mechanical aptitude and a computer aptitude.

AAM’s training curriculum centers on people, products, process, and systems. Training is based on the needs of each facility, department or individual. Targeting the needs involves a variety of factors such as upcoming program launches, process and equipment installations, safety initiatives and the quantity of new hires. All associates are given product awareness training for hands-on instruction on the products we manufacture. Lean-manufacturing workshops were put in place to give our associates comprehensive training in eliminating forms of waste in our operations and improving our competitive position. All front-line supervisors receive training in quality assurance and productivity-improvement processes that focus on maintaining world-class quality.

AAM partners with key colleges and universities to administer educational grants and provide instructors and training materials. While most of the training occurs on-site at AAM facilities, the colleges also supply off-site alternatives for larger training classes and seminars. Local colleges and universities also manage skill centers at AAM’s major industrial campuses. The centers provide computer access, tutorials, and other reference materials for continuing education. Online training has proven to be a flexible and cost-effective mode of training that is easy to deliver, facilitate, and track for multiple worldwide locations. For associates who wish to pursue college-level degrees and coursework not offered on site, AAM encourages higher education through tuition assistance.

Global competition and evolving technology mandate that manufacturing practitioners continue to learn how to improve productivity throughout their careers. Hence, training curricula must be regularly reviewed and modernized. For instance, as AAM selectively expands its global footprint to 27 locations worldwide, cultural awareness programs and language courses are progressively offered. Additionally, associates benchmark our global customers, suppliers, and competitors to make sure we are on track with the leading-edge products, equipment, processes, and materials that the world has to offer.

To give you an idea of the magnitude of AAM’s training initiative, more than 1500 classes were offered in 2005. Over the past 12 years, each AAM associate has received an average of more than 30 hr of training annually for a total investment that exceeds $184 million. Training is considered a critical component of AAM’s strategy and, as such, is not a thriftable item, even when times get tough.

Satisfying the industry’s need for qualified personnel is a joint responsibility. Primary and secondary schools must make math, science, languages, and engineering a priority. Colleges and universities must take the lead in empowering a competitive workforce. Simultaneously, government and business must do more to train workers to compete in this ever changing global economy. If we do those simple things, manufacturing will flourish and be a preferred career choice for the American workforce.


Richard E. Dauch

Since co-founding AAM in 1994, Richard Dauch has transformed the corporation into one of the top 40 automotive suppliers in the world. His commitment to manufacturing engineering education goes beyond that which he’s demonstrated through his leadership of AAM. He has personally invested in educational endeavors, such as the Dauch Center for the Management of Manufacturing Enterprises at Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN). Dauch has previously served on the SME Board of Directors. He has also been honored by the Society as a member of its College of Fellows and, most recently, as recipient of its 2006 Donald C. Burnham Manufacturing Management Award. Dauch has lectured extensively on the subject of manufacturing, and authored the recently re-released book, Passion for Manufacturing.


Education Foundation Grants

Since SME formed its Education Foundation in 1979, it has invested over $15.5 million in grants. Along with its youth and scholarship programs, the Foundation’s grants support the advancement of manufacturing education, and manufacturing as a career choice. Grants encourage collaboration between industry and educational institutions while stimulating the use of new and emerging technologies in manufacturing curricula. Here are a few examples.

  • Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University) used a 2000 grant to better educate students in semiconductor manufacturing. It introduced five new courses, enhanced three degrees, created a new semiconductor manufacturing laboratory, and launched a new bachelor’s degree in Manufacturing Engineering. Since 2003, 30% more students have chosen majors in manufacturing education at the university.
  • A consortium that included Rochester Institute of Technology, Corning Community College, and George Brown College utilized 2002 grant dollars to improve education in electronics/optoelectronics packaging in New York State and Ontario, Canada. To support this growing industry, the universities developed three new courses, constructed two new optoelectronics packaging labs, and upgraded existing equipment and facilities. The students’ readiness for jobs in this industry has increased.
  • Terra Community College used a 2002 grant to provide more flexible learning options, such as distance learning, for its engineering students; offer new courses in communications, industrial computing, and graphical interfaces; and partner with companies, including General Mills, to present targeted courses. Terra also helped establish a transition program for Ohio high school students, increasing recruitment into its engineering program by 40%.
  • The University of Detroit-Mercy, in partnership with Macomb Community College, Schoolcraft College, and Holy Redeemer High School, formed an alliance and utilized a 2002 grant to launch four new engineering degree programs, helping to increase the number of trained manufacturing engineers and technologists in the Great Lakes region.

For more details about these grants, current grants, or the Education Foundation’s youth and scholarship programs, see, or call (313) 425-3300.


This article was first published in the June 2006 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 6/1/2006

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