Many of us remember that scene from the classic movie The Graduate where Dustin Hoffman’s neighbor approaches the just-graduated youngster, about to seek his first job, with some advice: “I just want to say one word to you … just one word: plastics.” Today that one word of advice would surely be: change.
Coast to coast, industrial fields are undergoing a massive sea change unseen in recent industrial history, and the reason is very clear: the rise of robotics, automated processes, 3D printing and advanced materials are all impacting and dramatically changing shop floors, while also altering the skill set of every employee that works in manufacturing.
What should employers do? How can we all keep pace with change by reshaping our workforces to take advantage of new opportunities? That also comes down to one word: creativity.
Why We Need a New Kind of Employee
Well-trained employees are the fastest way to obtain an evolved workforce, but already the deck is stacked when it comes to finding qualified candidates. The Wall Street Journal recently pointed to a survey highlighting a decline in technical industry apprenticeships — from 500,000 10 years ago to 280,000 today. Add to that, polls by Manpower Group and The Manufacturing Institute cite widespread employer difficulties filling jobs, the latter stating 75 percent of manufacturers surveyed were experiencing trouble filling open technical positions.
With far fewer apprenticeship programs nationally and technology driving the demand for highly skilled workers, employers need to turn to technical colleges and seek a new breed of candidate: one that brings a more rounded skill set and industry-ready experiences to their first day on the job.
Recruitment used to be easier. Employers could simply review a resume, meet for an interview and check references of their chosen candidate. Today, there’s a more urgent need for candidates to bring balance. That means a pre-existing familiarity with the machinery, processes and often-specialized tools of their chosen profession — gained from work experience and internships. But balance also means other skills too: analytical thinking, a design sensibility, experience with computer programming and a holistic view of the production, engineering and manufacturing processes that will inform how they do their chosen job.
The New Differentiator: Creativity
It might seem like an odd statement. Why must employers in technical fields seek candidates that display creativity? Consider the rapid rise of 3D printing, software programming, CAD technologies and a wide diversity of highly technical production and manufacturing processes and it’s evident why any job candidate needs both technical skills and an established foundation of rounded experience for their role.
At Dunwoody, our curriculum encourages a creative approach to technical subject matter and class projects. Students use CAD/CAM software, 3D printing technology and our in-house manufacturing lab, an environment that gives students critical experience in translating concepts into fully matured and manufactured prototype products.
A number of technical colleges, our own included, are also challenging students to compete in competitions at a new level. For instance, our Autonomous Snow Plow Competition challenges participants to conceive, design and engineer a robotic snowplow that autonomously navigates city sidewalks, driveways and parking lots in the worst weather conditions.
Foot in the Door
The pace of industry and the speed of change today demand all employees make an immediate contribution on day one of the job. Considering the degree of technical specificity, proprietary processes and materials in manufacturing and engineering, employers should seek candidates from colleges that have a successful track record of working closely with industry.
The best technical colleges work closely with all kinds of employers in everything from plastics and other forms of manufacturing to automotive, HVAC, engineering and more, in order to make sure students gain experience with the technologies, equipment and processes they will encounter in their future jobs. At Dunwoody, many of our projects and curriculums are designed in concert with employers and we ask students to gain both a familiarity with the up-to-the-minute technical demands of their future workplaces and a creative sensibility when it comes to understanding and solving real-world problems.
Educators and Instructors
Finally, as employers trying to fill open positions, you should ask a candidate “who taught your classes?” Try to interview graduates who come from a college where classes have been taught by faculty members who are both experienced educators as well as industry professionals. There’s no substitute for the benefits students receive from being immersed in case studies and anecdotes of daily working life and challenges in chosen fields. It is the experiences and perspectives of instructors who have worked and succeeded in the trenches of ever-changing industry fields that will really help guide and prepare the most successful technical workers of tomorrow.
E.J. Daigle is Dean of Robotics and Manufacturing Technology at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.