Focus on the Workforce: Baltimore Takes on Manufacturing Challenges
By Mark Rice, PE
Maritime Applied Physics Corp.
For those who were not paying attention to the recent election, manufacturing matters and the US has a manufacturing workforce problem. The problem has several components:
Retirement: The baby boom generation is retiring. This generation makes up a disproportionate percentage of the skilled manufacturing labor in America. This is particularly true in specialized fields such as CNC machining, tool and die makers, and electrical trades.
Lack of Relevant Computer Skills: Manufacturing jobs now require computer software and hardware skills that are changing at a pace chronicled by Moore’s Law1. The process of reading drawings has largely been replaced with the process of interacting with computer aided design files, finite element models, and kinematic simulations of manufacturing processes. While Generation Y has experience with general computer systems and social networking, these are not the highly specialized computer skills needed in manufacturing. Manufacturers are among many businesses competing for employees with specialized computer skills. The evolution of a Semantic Web2 and Semantic manufacturing3 will only increase this trend.
Hands-On Experience: Hands-on vocational technical training has largely disappeared from high school curricula. Fewer high school students have relevant work experience where this knowledge was formerly gained. Whether it is the increasing sophistication of automobiles (once the at-home introduction to electromechanics) or the reduction in after-school hands-on job opportunities, Generation Y is less experienced with electrical and mechanical systems.
Stigma: Manufacturing continues to have a dated image. While middle and high school competitions are effective at incentivizing students in science and math, the relationship to a manufacturing career pathway is not evident to many parents, students, guidance counselors, or teachers. We live with the dull, dirty, and dangerous stigma of 1950s factory work while today’s manufacturing jobs require high levels of training. The mayor of Baltimore recently addressed this issue at the SME Annual Conference where a group of Baltimore City students and their parents attended an interactive fair on the first afternoon of the conference.
Train for the Future, not the Past: Advanced manufacturing materials and processes are changing the skills required. Whether it is the advent of additive manufacturing, the growth of MEMS manufacturing, the rapid introduction of robotics, or the explosion in biomedical manufacturing, the skills needed for the next 30 years will be different than those used in the last 30 years.
Our training programs are often teaching the trades of the past, however. While the Bridgeport milling machine remains an essential part of many manufacturing processes, it may no longer be appropriate as the ubiquitous tool for training future manufacturing professionals.
The US Department of Labor is assisting states with the development of Career Pathways that amalgamate resources, connect educational curricula, and promote stackable credentials that can be used by an individual to climb career ladders within his or her working life.
Baltimore City and Baltimore County in Maryland have opted to develop a manufacturing career pathway under the sponsorship of the State of Maryland and the US Department of Labor. This region was once a manufacturing juggernaut with steel mills, ship building, automobile assembly plants, soap factories, sugar processing, and many specialty manufacturers.
As outlined in a Pratt Center report4 and a Brookings Institute report5, the decline in urban manufacturing was paralleled by an increase in urban poverty. This was certainly the case in Baltimore, and it reflects a trend that occurred over the last 50 years in many urban centers as blue collar jobs went overseas. Manufacturing labor has declined as a percentage of the nation’s work force since 1961 due in part to productivity improvements and to the offshoring of many manufacturing jobs. Through the Maryland manufacturing pathways program, the Baltimore region will connect resources, local governments, educational programs, and industry partners to develop visible pathways that start at the high school GED level and connect up through the PhD manufacturing engineer.
The Baltimore City School system, in collaboration with SME, local manufacturers, the mayor of Baltimore, and the National Institute of Metalworking Skills is introducing a new manufacturing program of Study in the Baltimore High School Office of “Learning to Work” Career and Technology Education program. Working with NIMS and SME’s Tooling U program, the curriculum will initially focus on training CNC machinists. The curriculum will use revised Tooling-U course work and NIMS certifications to build traditional and advanced skills. The program will be linked with community college programs to provide a post high school educational component to the career pathway.
There is a pressing need to renew the linkage between those providing manufacturing education and those who would hire their graduates. Unlike countries such as Japan, Germany, and China, the US generally does not have effective apprenticeship or internship programs that facilitate communication and transition between educators and manufacturing. While such programs existed in the US in the last century, they were gradually extinguished as we focused on other national priorities. To renew these processes, organizations such as SME must play an active role in creating and maintaining these links.
By including internships in academic programs, the feedback channels are opened and employers and educators create pragmatic communication channels. Summer internships of manufacturing educators within manufacturing facilities can also provide a mechanism for communication and understanding. Conversely, the manufacturing engineer who is drawn into the classroom can immediately understand the challenges of the educator. National mechanisms to facilitate such programs should be expanded to accelerate the process.
Manufacturing employment in the US has gradually shifted from large to smaller firms. While supply chains were once stacked by company size, there are now many examples of first-tier small manufacturers who are able to compete in both national and international markets. While net decline in manufacturing employment is disturbing from a national workforce perspective, the smaller manufacturing workforce at least results in a capability to more rapidly retool for advanced manufacturing without displacing large numbers of workers.
The current rate of technology change is extraordinary. The time to market for new products has been reduced to months while the lifecycle of new products can now also be measured in months. As we consider the next 50 years, it is instructive to reflect on manufacturing changes during the last 50 years. The impact of factory automation is now being felt throughout the world.
To compete in the international manufacturing sector, we must have the best workforce. To sustain the best workforce, we need major changes in manufacturing education both through the traditional education process and into the continuing education process. ME
1Moore's Law: http://tinyurl.com/mfgengmooreslaw
2Semantic Web: http://tinyurl.com/mfgengsemanticweb
3Semantic Manufacturing: http://tinyurl.com/OSEMA2012
4Pratt Center report: http://tinyurl.com/mfgengcommunities
5Brookings Institute report: http://tinyurl.com/BrookingsBaltimore
This article was first published in the August 2013 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.