ME proposes a plan for attracting and training workers who are qualified to run tomorrow’s high-tech manufacturing facilities.
Collaborative engineering and workforce development are big buzzwords in manufacturing today—and for good reason. Not only can both generate tremendous efficiencies, but also the concepts behind collaborative engineering are just as valid for maintaining a pipeline of qualified workers as they are for managing a supply chain. It seems natural, therefore, to apply collaborative concepts to solve what could become crippling problems in the pipeline if nothing is done about them now.
At least, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (Dearborn, MI) thinks so. Its leadership has been engaging industry leaders in a dialogue about the dwindling supply of the talent needed to tend the high technology in tomorrow’s manufacturing facilities. "We’re talking about the future of the manufacturing workforce," says Joseph LaRussa, PE, director of membership at SME. "We're working with other associations to build a system of established certifications to prepare the 21st century workforce."
The next round of talks will occur next month at the interactive manufacturing eXperience (imX), a combination learning event and interactive trade show occurring at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Because the event is geared for brainstorming the problems faced by the invited executive guests, SME is seeking to address there and elsewhere a twofold problem threatening the ability of manufacturers to attract and maintain a competitive workforce. "First is a capacity problem of too few workers in the pipeline, and second is the lack of the necessary skills," says LaRussa.
Although some manufacturers have already recognized the skills problem and are taking steps locally to correct it, there are limits to what any company can do by itself, because, in the end, the problem is a systemic one. As such, it needs a systemic solution.
The cause of this growing shortage of skilled workers has been the relentless pace of technological advancements and the demographic changes that have accompanied them. As the baby boomers retire, their departure will leave a huge vacuum of experience in their wake. "In a meeting of leaders from manufacturing, a large aerospace-defense OEM told us that about 50% of its technical workforce will be retiring in the near future," says Jeannine Kunz, SME’s director of professional development.
And because of the rapid advancement of technology, many of the people who are being left behind have been caught by surprise. In some sectors, such as computers and electronics, a new generation of technology is born every 18 months. Because the trend has been to integrate more computers and other forms of automation into traditional manufacturing processes, it is easy for employees to find themselves suddenly without the technical skills necessary for functioning in today’s workplace.
"The need is for an integrated knowledge resource who knows not only about such things as chip making, but also a little bit about computers, networking, and extracting data and information from the process," explains LaRussa in SME’s membership division. "Employers need people who can analyze the performance of the equipment, in addition to knowing how to make parts right the first time."
Skilled Workers Hard to Find
Among the reasons that these people are hard to find is the decline of the internal and external institutions that used to help manufacturers develop the workforce. Inside most companies, for example, apprenticeship programs disappeared long ago. Also scaled back have been orientation programs for rotating new engineers and other employees through the various departments so they would get a feel for the whole business and their roles in it.
"Although a few companies like American Axle and Manufacturing [Detroit] still do this, it’s broken down in most others," says Kunz in SME’s professional development. "The result is compartmentalization, so no one really knows and understands the rest of the business."
While the decline of internal workforce-development programs has been inhibiting the importation and integration of the skills needed today, problems in external institutions have been having their effects, too. First and foremost have been the well-publicized failures of some public schools to teach students the basic math and other skills necessary for functioning in high-tech workplaces. Even in technical schools where the math skills may be sound, the rapid pace of technological advancement has made keeping up with technology as difficult there as it has been in the workplace.
Hence, the inability of individuals, corporations, and other institutions to keep pace with technology has created a skills gap that seems to be widening. This gap is probably most evident among the manufacturers that are unable to fill job openings with qualified people in an economy where the unemployment rate has been hovering around 9%.
Another explanation for this dichotomy is that the pipeline of fresh talent has been running dry. Talented young people have not been choosing careers in manufacturing, largely because people in our affluent society have become far-removed from the means of wealth production. Not only do they tend to be ignorant of how things are made, but they also often have outdated perceptions of the conditions in industrial workplaces. Because parents and educators see these environments as dirty and dangerous and the work itself as monotonous and demeaning, they often steer young people toward what they deem as more meaningful careers.
Young people are easily swayed by such advice because, according to a recent study on their career choices, they want to contribute to society. "Their greatest interest was a career where they could make a difference and do meaningful work," says Bart Aslin, chief executive officer of SME’s Education Foundation. He thinks that someone needs to tell them about such opportunities as prosthetics and nanotechnologies that exist in advanced manufacturing.
Speaking with One Voice
Because no one person or institution can tell young people about these exciting prospects and fill the widening skills gap, the industry must collaborate to find a way to do both. SME believes that it is in a good position to help with this task because it has touch points across the entire workforce-development pipeline. It touches students through its Education Foundation and student chapters, as well as engaging practicing professionals who are active in the organization and managers who are already using its services to develop their workforce. Hence, the organization has been engaging the industry in a collaborative dialogue and suggesting ways to solve both parts of the workforce problem.
To begin bridging the skills gap, SME is proposing a standard that defines what the necessary skills are. Developed by the Manufacturing Institute (Washington, DC) and like-minded organizations, the standard, called the Skills Certification System, is composed of the professional certifications offered by each of the participating associations. Not only does it guide educators and workers in developing the skills, but it also gives both schools and employers a tool for assessing what skills are lacking among their students and workers.
SME is also supporting the development of fresh talent through its Education Foundation. Its grants support science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), not only in colleges but also in K through 12 education. Some of its lesser-known projects include such extracurricular activities as robotics to foster interest in manufacturing among middle schoolers. "In high school, we introduce a curriculum for computer-integrated manufacturing [CIM]," says Aslin. "Every school that has a CIM program has at least one manufacturer on the advisory board that is mandated for each of the schools." Often these advisors are drawn from a local SME chapter.
Once these links are established, the next step is to establish mentorship programs and internships through SME’s resources to get young people to consider going into manufacturing. Mentorship programs give students access to people who can tell them how interesting this field can be and that it can provide them with worthwhile careers. The goal of internships is to give them something meaningful to do in order to develop skills and instill a desire to go into manufacturing.
SME is also encouraging manufacturers to partner with local universities and community colleges. Not only can manufacturers provide internships for students at this level as well and externships for teachers and professors, but they also can provide volunteers to sit on the schools’ advisory boards. "Some community colleges are very progressive about working closely with manufacturers to understand what students need to know," says Kunz from SME’s professional development. In return, a community college might be able to provide much-needed skills training for a local manufacturer.
Manufacturers can supplement any training that they receive this way with programs offered by professional organizations. Not only do the contacts that these organizations have nationwide give them access to experts otherwise unavailable to local institutions, but the organizations also have devised innovative ways of delivering content. SME’s Tooling U, for example, can package any of its 400 web-based courses into a customized training program delivered on demand.
"Users can take assessments to profile what they need to know," says Kunz. Based on the results, a training program can be tailored to the specific skills gaps that need bridging. Each trainee can then log onto the courses from any computer or mobile device at any convenient time. A few companies have gone so far as to arrange for their employees to take these courses on PC-based computer numerical controls (CNCs) that have access to the Internet, according to Kunz.
By talking about these ideas in public venues such as imX and this magazine, SME is attempting to jumpstart an industry-wide dialogue on a crucial topic. It hopes that it can solicit both ideas and material support from manufacturers to bridge the growing skills gap and to replenish the dwindling workforce pipeline with fresh talent. It is putting its structures and points of contact with the industry at the service of this collaborative project. ME
This article was first published in the August 2011 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.