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Despite Efforts, Need for Trained Workers Greater Than Ever

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media
Teachers such as Binil Starly, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at North Carolina State University, are repackaging material from their courses to use in upskilling manufacturing workers.

Late in summer 2020, Tabitha Ramos faced the possibility of returning to jail as her COVID-affected restaurant job made it increasingly harder to pay rent for her transitional housing. Today Ramos, who has a history of illegal drug use, loves her work at a healthcare products contract development and manufacturing organization (CDMO) and has hope of advancing in her career.

“The difference between my life now and 15 months ago is huge,” Ramos said.

What helped turn her life around is AmSkills, a workforce training and apprenticeship nonprofit that offers employment bootcamps for adults like Ramos to get a start in manufacturing. Since January 2020, AmSkills has run 11 bootcamps in the Tampa Bay region of Florida to recruit and support entry-level workers.

AmSkills is one effort in a nationwide push to train and employ an American smart manufacturing workforce to occupy new positions and fill jobs vacated by retiring workers. Other efforts focus on upskilling the existing workforce. In addition to AmSkills, efforts include increased funding for community colleges in California; university professors carving up course content to offer online learning; and the federal government’s Manufacturing USA institutes and American Job Centers.

Despite all these endeavors and more, the shortfall of manufacturing workers is growing larger amid a two-year-old pandemic that has employees quitting their jobs in unprecedented numbers.

“We have had seven straight months where postings have exceeded 800,000 openings,” said Carolyn Lee, executive director of The Manufacturing Institute, the education and workforce partner of the National Association of Manufacturers. “Going into the pandemic we were hovering around 500,000 openings [a month].”

There were a record 1.9 million open job postings in October 2020, up from 950,000 in September, with an increased demand for goods accounting for the uptick, Lee said.

Stakes are high for filling manufacturing jobs.

“Our most recent talent study with Deloitte said that in 2030 the U.S. could lose a trillion dollars [in] GDP because they don’t have the people filling these jobs,” Lee said. “This will harm U.S. competitiveness in the global economy.”

That forecast elevates the importance of organizations like AmSkills in overcoming potential workers’ negative perceptions and lack of knowledge about manufacturing.

Tom Mudano leads the AmSkills program, an apprenticeship and workforce training nonprofit in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.

“So we said that’s where we need to focus—recruiting,” said Tom Mudano, AmSkills president and CEO.

The organization focuses on the people in Pasco, Hernando, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties and tries to engage high schoolers and adults by offering training, pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeships in mechatronics and machining. A plan is in place to offer robotics this year.

Once the high schoolers graduate, they’re invited to the bootcamp. The mobile bootcamps are also open to the public, including people like Ramos who’ve spent time in jail or prison.

“We typically go into lower-income areas and recruit people in the local community,” Mudano said.

During the two-week, hands-on bootcamps, participants are expected to show up on time every day, and in return have opportunities to try skills such as soldering, attend lunch-and-learns, receive help polishing their resumes and interviewing skills and follow-up job coaching.

“On the final day each candidate is guaranteed interviews with multiple hiring companies,” said Mudano. “We don’t guarantee jobs, we guarantee job interviews. The rest is up to them.”

Ramos was called back by two companies, including her present employer, the CDMO Formulated Solutions LLC.

“While our goal is to help manufacturers build jobs, we’re really about transforming lives,” said Mudano.

State Spending on Career Tech Ed is Uneven

Also helping with the push are the largely industry-specific 16 Manufacturing USA institutes, with education and workforce development programs that include programs for schoolchildren, demonstration centers sprinkled throughout the country, educational program certification, career roadmaps and skills-based curricula guidelines.

“The issue is a lot of the education in this country is driven at the state level … and it doesn’t make it easy,” said Conrad Leiva, vice president of ecosystem and workforce education at CESMII-The Smart Manufacturing Institute, part of the national Manufacturing USA network. “The system is complex and sources of funding are all over the place. They’re not centralized.”

In addition, community colleges want industry to tell them what they should be teaching and industry is not always up to date on technology, he said.

“So if community colleges are only developing education to what is common practice at the moment, they’re always behind.”

Take the student intern from El Camino Community College in California who had difficulty explaining his idea for a part to his engineer colleagues at the small company where he worked. Once he 3D printed the part at school and took it to his job, the engineers understood the student’s innovation.

Additional money from California’s Strong Workforce legislation allows El Camino to buy the “latest and greatest technology,” including additive manufacturing printers like the one the student intern used, five-axis robots and visual scanning equipment, said Jose Anaya, dean of community advancement at the Torrance, Calif., school.

“In some cases when we tour industry and go through our labs they’re amazed because they don’t even have that equipment,” Anaya said.

In addition to the Strong Workforce law, which has funneled $248 million yearly since 2016 into career technical education (CTE) targeted to Industry 4.0 at community colleges, employers can tap into the Employer Training Panel, money raised through a payroll tax, for upskilling their workers. Also, by law, a certain percentage of California’s budget has to be set aside for education.

“I’m only guessing here but I would think that California, given what I hear from other states, would be at the top of the list in spending not only for career and technical education, but throughout the education system,” Anaya said.

Participants in the workforce training AmSkills program are guaranteed job interviews after completing a two-week bootcamp that includes hands-on work, lunch-and-learns, resume help and job coaching.

He’s right on one count. California spends the most of any state on postsecondary education in the United States, according to

Determining how much each state spends on CTE is difficult because apparently no one tracks the data. Anaya said when he needed to tally his state’s CTE spending he had to “drill down deep” in California’s education budget.

Thanks to support from the state government for worker training and retraining, El Camino collaborates with about 1,000 companies yearly on upskilling their workers at no cost to the employer, with some restrictions.

“I can’t imagine other states that don’t have this how difficult it must be to upskill their workforce,” he said.

At the federal government level, about 2,400 American Job Centers offer training referrals, career counseling, job listings and other services. They can also set up job fairs, offer customized training and do initial employment screening, said Robin Fernkas, deputy administrator of the Office of Workforce Investment, U.S. Department of Labor, in a recent SME webinar.

The centers are overseen by workforce development boards led by private sector business representatives who set priorities for their communities to meet regional labor market demands, she said.

“One trend we’ve seen … is an uptick in automation that happened during the pandemic. This means certain jobs require a different skillset than your workforce currently has,” Fernkas said.

‘Snackable’ Content Offered for Upskilling

Leiva agreed with Anaya there’s more funding for a manufacturer who wants to upskill his workforce than for bringing a whole new group of people into manufacturing. He mentioned one CESMII member, North Carolina State University, for its help with upskilling.

Conrad Leiva, vice president of ecosystem and workforce education at CESMII-The Smart Manufacturing Institute, thinks industry is progressing at such a fast rate that six-month programs may be best for worker training and retraining to keep up with changes.

“A lot of our partners at the university level are taking materials out of their university-level (courses) and repackaging them for workforce upskilling,” he said.

One such partner is Binil Starly, James T. Ryan Professor in the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at NCSU. He offers an online class with a university-issued certificate upon completion. His decision was based at least partly on a recommendation from the American Society of Engineering Education Industry 4.0 panel that many of their industry partners were looking for “snackable” content to help improve their technical skills.

Starly said he took one module from his existing three-credit-hour graduate class and offers it as a six-week online class entitled, “Smart Manufacturing: Moving Machine Data to the Cloud via MQTT.”

“We felt there was a growing audience of working professionals who weren’t interested in a full scale, three-credit class or a degreed certificate program—but rather wanted content that covered in sufficient depth the technology covered in the material, its limitations, advantages from a non-commercial viewpoint and some practical skills in testing and implementing it,” he writes in an email. “Many of the classes on EdX/Coursera/Udemy did not have the necessary depth.”

With their busy lives and responsibilities that might pull them elsewhere, Starly said he imposed a deadline of six weeks for the self-paced course to encourage students to take completion of the work seriously.

He’s tinkering with the format to see what works best.

“I’m still trying to find the right balance between online vs. in-person content,” Starly said. “I do think a three-day, in-person, face-to-face content is still valuable to the student.”

Who knows, maybe someday Starly will see Ramos, AmSkills’ success story, on his student list when she needs to upskill for her next promotion.

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