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More US funds needed to address workforce skills gap

Bogdan Vernescu
By Bogdan Vernescu Vice Provost for Research, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

A strong manufacturing ecosystem that includes manufacturing engineering education is critical to ensuring the future vitality and innovation of manufacturing initiatives in the US. So it was welcome news to learn that the DOD is developing a new manufacturing engineering education (MEE) grant program, authorized by Congress with initial funding of $10 million for fiscal 2017.

Universities and industries across the nation stand to contribute to the program as they are training the next generation of engineers and scientists, who are poised to make an impact on economic competitiveness and national security. While the initial funding and intent of the program is encouraging, the reality is that more funding and coordination need to take place to ensure the long-term impact of this program.

The focus is on programs that closely link universities with industry and national labs, and are key to developing the necessary training for engineering workers with specialized skill sets for the manufacturing of next-generation technologies. These partnerships can help develop programs in demand-driven areas of manufacturing, create a workforce that has industry relevant knowledge, and accelerate the transfer of innovations to industry. Germany developed a similar model, and manufacturing accounts for a significant part of its GDP (23% versus 12% in the US).

The MEE program holds much promise. Under the program, colleges and universities across America would have the ability to focus on a specific technology sector and create curriculum and workforce development programs tied to that sector. Universities would also leverage their industry partners, developing key equipment and materials that can bolster the nation’s military-industrial manufacturing activities.

That effort comes as a number of well-publicized reports point to struggling manufacturing competitiveness, which stems in part from an insufficient number of skilled workers to meet 21st century workforce demands.

Higher education can play a leading role. Dozens of universities across the US are already training students in a host of manufacturing engineering programs.

But funding is needed to develop a novel education model based on project-based learning in collaboration with industry and national labs.

Universities nationwide, including Worcester Polytechnic Institute, are requesting that Congress increase funding in the MEE program to $80 million for fiscal year 2018, and then $80 million annually from fiscal years 2019 through 2021 as a proposed insertion into the President’s future budget request.

An increase in funding would allow awards to at least 20 universities and organizations of $4 million each in the first fiscal year. Universities would be able to provide the DOD and the military industrial manufacturing base with the specialized workforce needed to make and upgrade military-related component technology.

Congress is considering the matter. In late July, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers hosted a Congressional briefing attended by panelists from WPI, Clemson, the Department of Defense, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, and Northrop Grumman Corp. The panelists voiced their support for the grant program and the benefits of an educated and innovative workforce. The panelists also noted that increased funding would let them expand their programs and develop partnerships with other universities and industry.

Universities and industry have previously banded together to drive manufacturing efforts. One example is the Manufacturing USA initiative, which has stood up 14 innovation institutes.

In a similar way, an increase in funding in the MEE grant program would enhance universities’ engineering degree programs, support ongoing training and education efforts for future engineers and have a lasting and significant benefit to national security and the economy in the US.

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