Certain politicians, concerned about the slow pace of job creation, routinely ask, "Where are the jobs?" The fact is there are hundreds of thousands good-paying jobs available right now, but they remain unfilled because employers can't find workers with the right skills. Those employers are America's manufacturers.
The manufacturing industry is facing an employment crisis. The rate of technical advances has outpaced our ability to educate and train workers on new machines and applications, creating a "skills gap." President Obama referred to one break-through technology during his State of the Union address, 3D printing, noting that a "once-shuttered warehouse is now a state-of-the-art lab where new workers are mastering the 3D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything."
This is a great time to work in manufacturing. We're applying once pie-in-the-sky technologies to real-world needs: creating strong yet flexible limb replacements for our wounded warriors, robots that crawl into the fuselage of an aircraft, mountain bikes for extreme enthusiasts, engineered for safety pushing the boundaries of men and machine. It's stuff that captures the imagination.
Yet students are not pursuing these jobs despite the cool factor. Some of it is institutional and some of it is perception. A major challenge is there is no academic infrastructure to administer STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum on a national scale. That's compounded by a lack interest in STEM by educators, parents and students who may be more inclined toward attending a four-year college.
There's also a lack of awareness of how manufacturing has changed over the last several decades. When you visit a modern manufacturing plant, you're more likely to meet a business-casual dressed technician in a clean room than a grease-stained worker in a noisy machine shop.
The Great Recession has drawn attention to the jobs crisis in manufacturing. Despite a stubbornly high unemployment rate, manufacturing is undergoing a resurgence, and some manufacturers are bringing offshore jobs back to the U.S. Revenue-starved states see this as an opportunity to retool older plants and facilities and create incentives to attract manufacturers from other parts of the country. That requires having training and education in place to keep the employment pipeline filled.
Individual states have been taking the initiative to narrow in the skills gap. Take the state of Massachusetts, where Gov. Deval Patrick has made it clear he intends to support the state's fifth largest sector employer. Using the backdrop of Springfield Technical Community College's Smith & Wesson Technology Applications, he announced plans to include $112 million in scholarships in the state's budget.
Other steps the state has taken closely follows industry recommendations for expanding the talent pool of skilled workers.
Partnering with Business
The state's Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative shows how business, government, and educators can identify the skills that are needed, understand and update the curriculum, and engage students in real-world projects through design-build competitions and internships.
Access to Education
The state is reforming its community-college system. The goal is to make community colleges "more responsive to the needs of businesses and help fill the skills gap that can often leave employers with a shortage of well-trained job prospects." We hope the reform will also include national accreditation for schools and skills certification for students.
Earlier this year, Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray announced the expansion of five programs across the state to prepare workers for careers in STEM fields. In addition to approximately $428,000 from the state's STEM Pipeline Fund, the programs will leverage more than $1.3 million in matching funds from participating corporations, private foundations, and federal government sources.
The Obama administration has announced its own series of advanced manufacturing initiatives to address the skills gap, in part by launching three new manufacturing innovation institutes developed in partnership with business, universities and community colleges. In another initiative, the Department of Energy will partner with the Ford Motor Company and the National Association of Manufacturers to make use of the Department's National Training & Education Resource to educate and train a new generation of manufacturers.
Taken in its totality, the prospects for growing a modern manufacturing workforce look bright, barring another recession. It's important to keep up the current momentum and awareness in the halls of Congress, academia and state houses. So next time someone asks, "Where are the jobs?" tell them to ask a manufacturer.