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Focus on the Workforce: Does Manufacturing's Image Affect Workforce-Development Efforts?

  Mark C. Tomlinson, CMfgE, EMCP

By Mark C. Tomlinson, CMfgE, EMCP
Executive Director & General Manager
Society of Manufacturing Engineers

As companies start the process of replacing the aging/retiring workforce, what problems will they face? One area of major concern will be the development of a new, highly skilled technical workforce. What challenges will they confront to find the qualified individuals needed to support a growing economy? Will they struggle to find people with the right skills or will they even find enough of them?

As the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) reviews the current landscape of the manufacturing workforce in all sectors of industry, we see technical competency gaps and a lack of quantity in both our current and future workforces. The current workforce needs additional skills, which will allow for critical systematic/technical thinking to problem solve and develop new products in today’s highly competitive environment. We also need a future-workforce pipeline of students who are interested in changing the world by making things.

Why is finding a qualified workforce an issue? SME believes that part of the problem stems from a lack of understanding of what manufacturing is. The Society’s definition of manufacturing can be summed up in four words: part, process, machine, and system. What this definition means is that anyone who makes things, from research and development to the logistics department, is part of the manufacturing process. Manufacturing starts with product development and ends with the supply chain.

Now that we have defined manufacturing, let’s review its perception. When we hear about job losses in manufacturing, we generally hear about repetitive assembly jobs that have been lost and moved offshore. As products become commodities, companies may transfer this task to the lowest-cost option, which could be overseas or in a different region of the country. What we do not hear about is the critical skill shortages manufacturing organizations face when trying to replace and/or improve their technical workforce.


The challenge we are facing is that community colleges, technical institutions, and universities are not getting enough students into programs that will support the needs of manufacturing. Our primary and secondary educational system is not keeping students in key STEM programs, which will prepare and excite our children in pursuing careers where they can change the world through making things.

We have all heard this cry before. We can no longer just talk about the problem; we need to take a proactive approach to solving these critical issues by addressing them at all levels of our society. We must work diligently to change the image and perception of manufacturing. This change starts with a need for a clear set of messages that can be used by all of us who support manufacturing, when we are in discussions with individuals, parents, students, political leaders, companies, and other societies and associations.

Through the leadership of our 2010 president, Barbara Fossum, PhD, FSME, SME has developed several key
messages that address this critical issue. Here are just
a few examples:

  1. Industry, government, and academia must work together to make career opportunities in manufacturing visible.
  2. Manufacturers should make their support of additional research in engineering programs contingent on the offering of manufacturing-named programs.
  3. Manufacturers should work to enhance diversity within manufacturing programs to ensure that everything possible is being done to guide and mentor valuable
    human resources.
  4. We must convey the message to parents, teachers, counselors, and the media that there is a strong need for new employees in manufacturing at all levels: skilled trades, manufacturing operations technicians, manufacturing technologists, and manufacturing engineers.

SME is continuing to develop and refine a complete series of messages to help with the critical issues associated with both the image and the state of manufacturing and manufacturing education. We as manufacturing practitioners need to continue to support their development and use them at every opportunity. SME is committed to continuing to educate the uninformed on what manufacturing is and is not. We will continue to talk about how manufacturing supports and is critical to a stable, environmentally responsible economy.

If the youth of today are concerned about their futures and the planet’s future, and want to change the world to make it a better place, doing so starts with knowing how to make things. That is what manufacturing is and always will be. We just need to continue to educate the uninformed. ME


This article was first published in the February 2011 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.  Click here for PDF


Published Date : 2/1/2011

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