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Fusion of the Physical and Cyber for Real-World Solutions

By Janine E. Janosky, PhD, David Girzadas, and Steven Meneses, PhD

According to the World Economic Forum, the U.S. has increased its global competitiveness ranking thanks in part to improved financial markets and innovation scores, along with the ability to attract and retain talent. However, there remains a disparity between growth in high-wage job creation and the unemployment rate, driven by globalization, technological innovation and a deficit in the U.S. workforce in the requisite skills to fulfill technical, high-paying jobs. This was especially evident during the pandemic, and it remains evident now as we continue our recovery. The reduction in economic competitiveness is particularly evident in states showing declines in employment growth, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, as compared to an increase in the U.S. overall during the same period.  

The lack of U.S. graduates with skills required for the available high-wage jobs has a large impact on the productivity of U.S. businesses. In recognition of the skills deficit, the Workforce Investment Act was enacted to increase the employment, retention, and earnings of the U.S. workforce for higher skilled jobs largely through workforce development programs. Such initiatives are only likely to grow with increased leadership from federal, local and state governments, as well as industry and businesses.

A significant key to some of the development of the U.S. workforce lies with the training and education led by our community colleges. Some of these programs may be limited, as they are largely reactive, leaving a considerable period of time between the identification of a needed skill, developing a training program and producing proficient graduates or completers showing the attempted and achieved competencies. Another significant challenge is the demand from industry to the community colleges to provide a job-ready, relevant, trained workforce. Thus, a proactive approach to dealing with the skills deficit is required in order to educate and train students in anticipation of the jobs of tomorrow.

Along with retraining programs, the Council on Competitiveness recommended that educational institutions design new, innovative programs at the intersection of disciplines — i.e., convergence. The convergence of not only resources, including those of educational institutions and employers, but also disciplines within educational institutions, has tremendous potential to prepare the U.S. workforce for the high-skilled, high-paying jobs that are available today as well as ensure an adequate pipeline of skilled workers for future jobs - thus, a proactive approach. Some of these programs are taking the form of employer-educator partnerships, such as those facilitated by the Aspen Institute’s Skills for America’s Future program that fosters connections between community colleges and employers. Other employer-educator partnerships have been initiated by employers in the local communities in which their firms operate, such as The Boeing Company or Tesla. SME’s Manufacturing Imperative – Workforce Pipeline Challenge, of which Richard J. Daley College is a pilot institution, is a program that combines industry and workforce expertise with the educational programs and innovations of select community and technical colleges.

One area in which educational institutions could continue to meet the current growing labor market needs is in advanced manufacturing and engineering. As manufacturing continues to transform into Industry 4.0, there is an urgent and crucial need for individuals educated and trained for the digital workplace of manufacturing.

In response to this pivot toward a focus on Industry 4.0, educational institutions have started to create innovative, hybrid academic programs that integrate fields. Here, this integration of fields is named as convergence. Programs with a focus on the current and near future industry of advanced manufacturing — Industry 4.0 — prepared students with a skill set that allows them to address real-world solutions in a more holistic, multidisciplinary way using team science approaches. As an example, at Richard J. Daley College, in addition to the traditional trade training programs focused on welding, mechatronics, and more, the hands-on to the co-bot and robot integration is paramount. The convergence of advanced manufacturing and digitization, the intersection of these two disciplines, is Industry 4.0.

Though manufacturing consists of many subsections, such as food, auto, machinery and more, the basic skills related to digitization and Industry 4.0 have commonality. This is an opportunity for community colleges to lead in providing programs that support a breadth of advanced industries with training in the basic skills. These new implementations of connectivity and digitization, through convergence, will strengthen and enhance the quality of the existing programs. The convergence of advanced manufacturing and engineering as well as computer systems is the opportunity for the fusion of virtual and physical worlds. This convergence can be considered as cyber-physical systems, which is Industry 4.0. Industry 4.0 requires this need for integrative training programs that will impact the competitiveness and productivity of these industries. Responding to Industry 4.0 with these approaches through convergence that meets the demand of training the labor force is imperative. Deloitte noted that Industry 4.0 can assist U.S. manufacturers in tripling the labor productivity rate through 2030, stating that approximately 49% of the current U.S. manufacturers have yet to adapt to digital technology. This need fuels the increasing demand for community colleges, and higher education in general, to require pedagogical methods, namely convergence, needed for a skilled labor force.

Integrative training programs focusing on the convergence of disciplines has the potential to dramatically impact the competitiveness and productivity of a given industry, especially given that the economic vitality of a community is highly dependent on the health of businesses and industries in the economy. In addition to simply having enough skilled individuals to contribute to the labor force, businesses increasingly consider the economic vitality of the local area prior to moving to or expanding within a particular geographical location.

The increasing demand for higher education, global competition between educational institutions for students, as well as the emergence of new technologies will not only require the evolution of pedagogical methods and discipline convergence, but also will enable it. Increasing U.S. competitiveness as well as that of states like Illinois will require multifaceted approaches that include training a labor force for the technically advanced jobs of the future. Created through the intersection or convergence of disciples, integrated education and training programs have the potential to meet future labor force demands while tackling problems otherwise deemed intractable.

Dr. Janine Janosky is the President of Richard J. Daley College, David Girzadaz is the Dean of Manufacturing at Richard J. Daley College, and Dr. Steven Meneses is the Interim Director of MTEC at Richard J. Daley College.

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