Sam Cole of T.J. Williams Electric Co. works at a downtown Cincinnati job site. Cole is in the fourth year of his electrician apprenticeship and expects to earn journeyman status in one more year.
The U.S. manufacturing sector is regaining momentum, but many of those with close ties to it — from educators to senators — are concerned that the industry is not ready to face increasing demands.
After spending the last five years upgrading production lines, streamlining factories with multi-million dollar computers and adding automation, the manufacturing industry has evolved into a high-tech environment that has expanded to include thousands of new jobs.
The only thing missing is also the most important — workers ready to fill open positions.
“I think what we have seen over the last few decades is the diminishing of technical education: the hands-on approach to gaining skills,” said Jayce Wilkins, the communications director of the Manufacturing Institute. “Today these jobs are increasingly complex and technology-driven. You can’t just walk off the street and hope to work for a manufacturer.”
A non-profit affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers, the Manufacturing Institute has developed its own solution to the problem: a national manufacturing skills certification system that will ensure students graduating from technical schools will have the skills hiring companies are looking for.
Administered by the Institute in more than 125 colleges nationwide, the system involves “stackable” credentials based on competency (rather than courses completed), allowing experienced workers to skip straight to their level of ability.
So far, there are credentials for advanced manufacturing in 14 different areas, including mechatronics, logistics, cross-cutting technical skills, machining and metalworking. New certification programs in bioscience and aviation and aerospace are also being developed.
“You can’t just think about a manufacturing job being done on a factory floor,” Wilkins said. “Manufacturing includes every step of getting a product to the market, from inventing or improving ideas to financing production to the engineering of the product itself.”
The main focus for job placement success is ensuring that program advisory boards remain in tune with trends and changes in their respective industries, said Michael Cartney, the vice president of Lake Area Technical Institute (LATI) in South Dakota.
May 2012 graduates from LATI’s programs saw a 99% job-placement rate, with most technical graduates entering into the fields of agriculture, health care and manufacturing. The fact that placement rates at technical schools are rising is worth noting, especially at a time when many four-year college programs are struggling to find jobs for graduates.
To create a better relationship between students and employers, many colleges are joining in partnerships with local companies and national businesses such as Ford Motor Company and Cisco. By teaming up directly, program directors are better prepared to offer curriculums tailored to the industry’s demands.
“It is clear that people with the right skills can find jobs,” said Kathryn Hornsby, the assistant commissioner for the Technical College System of Georgia. “Our colleges work hand-in-hand with businesses and the industry to match their evolving needs.”
Getting students interested in manufacturing careers at a younger age is also a focus for the industry. The manufacturing sector relies on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education now more than ever to provide support for advanced production.
The AMERICA Works Act, introduced to the Senate on March 5, outlined a strategy for ensuring a qualified workforce by re-dedicating sources to STEM programs in high schools and colleges, as well as using industry-recognized certification such as those created by the Manufacturing Institute.
“Parents and the U.S. society at large have shifted to think that in order to be successful, students have to pursue a four-year degree, when in reality that’s not the case,” Wilkins said. “By working with high schools and universities to implement in-demand skills, students are going to have a better market value and be able to go straight into a career.”
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