By Bart A. Aslin
Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) Education Foundation
Many times I have been asked: "Why is manufacturing relevant as an industry, and why should we encourage young people to consider it as a career?" My passionate response is that throughout history, manufacturing has been the backbone of strong economies, and without a strong and vibrant manufacturing base, the US economy will continue to weaken over time. Recent evidence suggests that traditional US manufacturing is in decline, and that there is an urgent need to turn around this disturbing trend by promoting investment in advanced manufacturing processes and through the education of our future workforce in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).
Children are our future workforce. They are fascinated by things their parents no longer see, solve problems with simple solutions, and if left to explore, are naturally exhilarated by learning. We believe the first step in considering career direction for children is making sure they have simple access to resources that will provide them a solid grounding in STEM education.
When young people realize STEM is creative and fun, they are less apprehensive about its more challenging curriculum, and learning is made significantly easier. They have to know that STEM education is not only a prelude to engineering, but also to innovative manufacturing in the 21st century, and the job opportunities it offers.
Our future global manufacturing leaders are digital natives. Boys and girls from 11 through 14 years of age are conversant with the Internet, MP3s, Napster, and ITunes. They likely have their own cell phones, know all about channel surfing, and are involved in social networking. In the next ten years, their 24/7 lifestyle, unbounded by physical location, will affect how they perceive job opportunities and how they prepare for them. We are already observing these scenarios as young people re-invent manufacturing as we know it.
The SME Education Foundation began laying the groundwork for STEM-based education in 1997, and provided $1.3 million for the launch of our youth program initiative—Science, Technology, Engineering Preview (STEPS) camps. Five years ago, in a partnership with Project Lead The Way, a nationally-recognized, education nonprofit, our program evolved a new curriculum to become the Gateway Academy.
Designed for middle school students, this week-long summer day camp introduces young people enrolled in grades 6–8 to the fundamentals of science, technology, engineering, and math. Campers work in a fun, exciting environment using leading-edge technologies that allow them to experience robotics, aeronautics, and eco-design. In 2010, receiving inspiration from the recognition of the quality and importance of its curriculum by educators, parents, and industry, the SME Education Foundation provided $815,000 to Project Lead the Way for expansion of the Gateway Academy. In 2010, more than 4200 boys and girls took part in the program in 34 states.
The second stage of our educational trajectory for young people continues at the Gateway to Technology, a middle school pre-engineering program. Taught over a period of nine weeks in an academic year, this rigorous program introduces students to design and modeling, automation and robotics, energy and the environment, flight and space, science of technology, and the magic of electrons.
They are then prepared to move on to the Pathway to Engineering High School courses where they study Engineering Design, Principles of Engineering, and Digital Electronics. Specialization courses—Aerospace Engineering, Biotechnical Engineering, Civil Engineering and Architecture, and Computer Integrated Manufacturing.
Last year we were able to introduce Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) courses at 400 Manufacturing Education Centers across the country, and sponsored the course at pre-existing partner schools in Lee’s Summit, MO, and Charlotte, NC. The capstone course, Engineering Design and Development, is designed for 12th-grade students, and allows them to apply all the skills and knowledge learned in previous Project Lead The Way courses. The positive response of parents, students, and teachers, as well as business and industry, has been encouraging and exciting.
These efforts are preparing our future workforce for a reinvented economy. We cannot afford to follow the education template of the past 40 years and expect our young people to succeed. As US industries transition, and repetitive assembly jobs continue to be lost to overseas markets, near and long-term career opportunities will be in industries now in a growth and development mode. These industries include medical devices, energy and energy resources, alternative energy, and traditional oil and gas. On the horizon, more focus is being placed on research and development for micro and nano products. It is easy to see how this systematic pathway for students at this age level will go a long way to meet the needs of future employers in or about 2018.
Contrary to perception, there are many jobs available, but few workers are skilled enough to be hired. This reality fuels our efforts. Companies, large and small, are stepping up production, and are evaluating plans for expansion—though not aggressively.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job projections through 2018 identify two of the fastest growing occupations: computer specialists—including computer applications software engineers—and biomedical, where there is a growing need for medical scientists, biochemists, biophysicists, and biomedical engineers. The projected growth of medical equipment and supplies manufacturing is estimated at 16%, or 49,800 jobs through 2018. Projections for the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry similarly show growth of about 6.1% or 17,600 jobs through the same period.
The goal of the Gateway Academy is making sure that, when describing their skills to potential employers, students steeped in STEM-based education will be able to use descriptors such as adapted, assembled, built, conserved, debugged, designed, developed, engineered, fabricated, programmed, restored, standardized, or utilized—and this is the short list.
As an example, if one of these computer-literate young people aspires to a job in the field of computer engineering, they have to be prepared for a 10th-grade curriculum that examines computer hardware and the control of external components from an engineering perspective. They have to know how to solve problems, and study the functions of key computer components, peripherals, logic gates, fundamental programming concepts, internal numbering and character representation systems, and operating systems and networks.
As few as seven years ago, manufacturing was a striking addition to the national agenda, which included evaluating the state of the industry, education, and workforce. At the time, this topic received attention from all levels of government, across all news media. We concluded that, while the prominence of these issues was certainly a validation of the Foundation’s work, it was also a call to action. We accelerated the expansion of our efforts, which required a great deal of commitment from our leadership, volunteers, and donors.
Major organizations, business, industry, and academia have been instrumental to our ability to provide funding for scholarships, in-kind gifts, and programs to help young people acquire the technical skills required for advanced manufacturing. In addition to these major efforts, programs in local communities supported by business and industry are tied to the Gateway Academy program, and are offering effective, challenging programs to young people.
As an example, with funding provided by the SME Education Foundation, a team of eighth graders from Robeson Academy on Detroit’s west side learned how to build Electric Wheelie Cars at Focus: HOPE, a nationally recognized civil and human rights organization in Detroit, which was founded in 1968 after the Detroit riots. The Electric Wheelie Cars were provided by the Shop Rat Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to offering hands-on skilled trade education to young people to create the next generation of proud skilled workers and citizens. The organization has an after-school program called the Shop Rat Education Program, which is held at various manufacturing facilities for middle-school students.
The seven-week program at Focus: HOPE involved two teams—boys and girls—who learned to build the cars, evaluate the car’s design, drive them, and have an understanding of its various systems. An Electric Wheelie Car features alternative energy, zero-turn steering, electric motors, and dynamic braking, and is small enough to fit through a standard doorway.
Students working from kits provided by the Shop Rat Foundation had access to full blueprints, a complete frame package, complete electrical system, complete wheel/axle/tire assembly, instruction manual, educational lessons, and other components. The application of STEM skills in a competitive team environment is all about reaching young people and changing their attitudes about learning and what can be achieved.
US policymakers are recognizing that a strong, efficient and innovative manufacturing base is essential to our country’s economic future and our country’s world environment. As companies begin to rethink offshoring, and consider redirecting their manufacturing and production facilities back to the US, skilled workers are and will be needed. And those skilled workers will only be available if we encourage STEM education.
As the emerging technologies sector continues to accelerate, companies increasingly dependent on advanced manufacturing technologies and its processes want to hire engineers capable of designing and improving products, operating high-tech tools and machinery, analyzing problems, and maintaining or increasing their productivity levels.
The reality is that careers in manufacturing are becoming increasingly enviable. We are changing public perception of manufacturing as a career of choice because we are reaching a wider audience of young people through programs such as the Gateway Academy, and through our Web sites, Manufacturing is Cool.com and CareerMe.org.
Today, 81% of American manufacturers say their biggest problem is finding technologically skilled workers. We believe immediate and stronger collaboration between academia, business, industry, and government would go a long way toward changing public perception of manufacturing as a career, and secure its future in this country. ME
This article was first published in the January 2011 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.