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Focus on the Workforce: Falling Off the Cliff Isn't an Option

 Mark C. Tomlinson

By Mark C. Tomlinson, CMfgE, EMCP
Executive Director/CEO
Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME)



We are hearing in the daily news about the impending fiscal cliff. All of us know this problem needs to be solved quickly if we are going to stay on the path of economic growth. If not resolved, all the good work that has been accomplished around workforce development in 2012 will take a backseat to real economic and financial worries, which will ultimately affect our manufacturing vitality. I am hopeful that a solution will occur soon and manufacturing’s workforce gap will be the focus once again.

In SME’s white paper "Workforce Imperative: A Manufacturing Education Strategy," released in September 2012, we identified the current problem of companies struggling to find a trained, skilled workforce (visit for more information). SME believes this is also an opportunity for an individual who has the desire and means to obtain the appropriate skills to enter the manufacturing workforce.

Let’s take a look at the problem and review what has been accomplished. The challenge has three aspects: Future workforce or pipeline development; the training of those available to work today if the right skills are obtained; and our returning veterans who require both evaluation of their current skills and the appropriate supplemental training, thus allowing them to reenter the workforce after serving our country.

The pipeline for our future manufacturing workforce is a continual challenge that SME and the SME Education Foundation (SME-EF) are working diligently to address through:


PRIME Schools 

PRIME stands for Partnership Response in Manufacturing Education. This program began in 2011 with the recognition of six high schools that met the criteria and then expanded to an additional nine for the 2012—13 academic school year. Having had the opportunity to meet the young people involved in these programs, which engage the community college network and local industry, SME believes PRIME is a best-practice model available for pipeline development that gives our youth multiple paths into industry. The schools engaged in the program are from diverse economic and cultural communities, and involve both young men and women in the program. The biggest challenge we have is funding additional programs and providing the appropriate staff support to rapidly expand the program. One example of the program’s success is the Jackson Area Career Center (Jackson, MI), which was named one of the exemplary schools by the Foundation for its 2013 PRIME program.

The Jackson Area Career Center is a technical education hub for more than 1200 students from more than 15 different area high schools who are currently enrolled in the center’s 30 different programs—more than 30% of all juniors and seniors in Jackson. Students who chose to attend the Career Center do so at no cost to them or the local school district. The focus of the Career Center is to allow students a seamless, cost-free elective in their local school schedule in which to explore opportunities for their future and get a jump-start on college credits.

At the Career Center, community employers and partnerships are important to their operation and technical education programs. Each program utilizes the services of advisory committee members (more than 200 in all) to assist in keeping curriculum current with industry standards. Job placement coordinators work with area employers to assist students with nonpaid work experience, cooperative education and graduate job placement.

This 2013 PRIME school sets high standards for rigorous, focused and engaging study to develop students’ innovative, collaborative, cooperative and problem-solving skills through the different offerings of the manufacturing program.


Competitive Manufacturing Competitions 

SME is very supportive of the PRIME program and also supports, along with the Foundation, the concept of focused competitive programs, such as the FIRST® Robotics Competition and SkillsUSA, where young people compete locally and nationally. The importance of these competitions is not just who wins, but what life skills the competitors are obtaining by participating. Having attended both national finals in 2012, it gave me a better appreciation of how our youth can gain valuable communication and business acumen just by participating in these prestigious events. The challenge is supported locally. I would encourage all of you to appeal to your local government, educational and business organizations to support manufacturing skills competitions like FIRST and Skills with the same passion as they do for any athletic or music program.  

Many organizations have stepped up to the challenge, and following are examples of what they’ve accomplished:

Gene Haas Foundation Awards Scholarships to SkillsUSA Winners to Pursue Technical Education and Become Contributors to US Manufacturing—Many question whether the technical arts, which have traditionally served as the backbone of our nation’s workforce, remain a relevant and viable career option. At the National SkillsUSA Championships, a competition that engages more than 275,000 students in occupational, technical, skilled and service-related training programs at the high school and college level, the answer is clear: Not only are they a career option, they are attracting young people who possess incredible drive, talent and innovative thinking. [August 28, 2012, SME Press Release]

Training for the Current Population of Potential Workers is Equally Important Due to the Current Need for 600,000 Workers—"Boiling Point? The Skills Gap in U. S. Manufacturing," notes that the biggest areas of workforce shortage "...are those that impact operations the most and require the most training. From technicians to engineers, the talent crunch in these critical areas is taking its toll on manufacturers’ ability to meet current operation objectives and achieve longer-term goals." Of manufacturers surveyed by Deloitte, 82% reported moderate to serious gaps in the availability of skilled production candidates. Respondents report, on median, that 5% of their jobs remain unfilled "simply because they can’t find people with the right skills." [2011 Report by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute]Focus on the Workforce kids

SME is very active in providing products and services to both companies, who have a desire to improve a capability of their current workforce, and educational institutions who are reskilling the underemployed. Providing knowledge and training in the right format is the key so students can learn through the use of practical, online and instructor-led learning tools to expand their capabilities.

Manufacturing Skills Shortage: How One Company Solved It—"Skilled labor is a huge problem for us," said Brian Papke, president of Mazak USA. "Most companies expect the government to step in and help out, but at Mazak, we decided to be proactive." Papke circled the wagons at his Florence, KY, headquarters and developed a variety of training initiatives to offer entry-level positions and career advancement at Mazak. "We are proud to say that the people we recruit and hire stay with us and grow with us in most cases."

At the core of Mazak’s training program is SME’s Tooling University—a combination of computer-based training, classroom training and hands-on work with Mazak machines. Utilizing a state-of-the-art training center with the capacity for 200 students, Mazak is facing its workforce issues head on. In addition to Mazak University, Papke and his team partnered with local Gateway Community College to custom build a two-year program to produce apprentice engineers and machinists. Other advanced manufacturers are developing similar collaborations. Cincinnati-based Milacron Plastics Technology recently announced a 15-week pilot program for machinists at the University of Cincinnati Clermont College.

Such programs seem to be working, at least for Mazak. "We have hired 300 people since 2008 and are proud that we have helped develop some fantastic young people!" said Papke triumphantly. [Sept. 10, 2012, Industry Trends]

The third issue is how do we get our brave men and women who have served our country the right skills to enter the manufacturing workforce? This can be achieved through using assessment tools fundamentally based on skills certifications and credentials, and then providing specific blended learning opportunities that, if used, will allow our valuable asset of returning veterans to solve some of our skills gap issues. Two examples of how SME is supporting this initiative:

SME Works with US Army to Help Solve the Manufacturing Skills Gap—Over the next five years, there will be up to a million military personnel returning to civilian life and getting into the US civilian workforce. Juxtapose this with the 600,000 jobs currently open in advanced manufacturing and the anticipated need for 10-million skilled workers by 2020, and SME sees a "win-win" opportunity for all.

Through this partnership with the Society, the Army will expand certification opportunities for service members in highly specialized and technical engineering fields. The Army’s Engineer school will conduct a one-year pilot program to assess the potential for engineer officers and warrant officers to meet SME’s Certified Manufacturing Technologist (CMfgT) or Lean Bronze Certification credentials. These industry-recognized credentials will help service members qualify and pursue jobs as manufacturing technicians, technologists and engineers in the private sector.

This partnership with the DOD aligns with the White House’s goal of having 500,000 workers receive NAM-endorsed manufacturing certifications over the next five years, and positions individuals for employment and advancement in manufacturing jobs. [July 9, 2012, SME Press Release]

Workshop for Warriors—Since October 2011, Hernán Luis y Prado has been impacting two serious problems facing our nation with one brilliant solution: Workshops for Warriors. Through mentorship, training and education, this organization helps put veterans to work in skilled manufacturing jobs.

Improving the lives of veterans and the families who depend on them isn’t the only upside to this story. Local manufacturers who have been struggling to find skilled workers are tapping into the program to fill positions with exceptional people. Luis y Prado explains, "Workshops for Warriors’ mission is to help put America back to work, one veteran at a time. There are more than two-million manufacturing jobs open in the United States, at the same time unemployment among veterans—especially those between 18 and 24—is extremely high. Hiring our graduates is a win-win for this country and for the people who served it."

As a direct result of a recent $25,000 gift from SME-EF via the Gene Haas Foundation, Luis y Prado was able to put his first student through the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) certification program and get Workshops for Warriors on the path to becoming a NIMS-accredited facility—the first in San Diego. [August 23, 2012, SME Press Release]

These are just a few examples of how we are starting to climb the mountain and solve our skilled workforce issues. If not solved, manufacturing will have its own cliff to fall off of.

It’s our job as manufacturing practitioners, companies and educational institutions involved in manufacturing to understand the problem, engage in conversations with the misinformed and suggest best practices. Doing so will allow us to avoid any cliffs in our climb up the mountain where the end result is manufacturing being the foundation for a viable economy and a better life! ME

This article was first published in the January 2013 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.  



Published Date : 1/1/2013

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