February marked 100 years since President Woodrow Wilson signed the Smith-Hughes Act into law — the first major federal investment into secondary career and technical education (CTE). The goal was to prepare individuals to work in agriculture, a vocation that had a strong need for trained employees at the time.
Today, the CTE workforce is still at the center of the U.S. economy. It needs individuals who are highly skilled and specifically trained in STEM subject matters to work in new white collar industries such as advanced manufacturing. At the same time, employers continue to face hiring challenges when it comes to ushering young people into innovative Industry 4.0 careers. The lack of qualified workers (the skills gap) is an issue employers are quick to point out and complain about. We’ve reached a crucial point in time where action is needed from both educators and employers. Our collective focus must shift to becoming more proactive about the issue.
Employment in science and engineering occupations is expected to grow nearly 19 percent between 2010 and 2020. America is not as prepared as it needs to be to keep pace with economic competitors such as Germany, Japan and China — who’ve already tapped into Industry 4.0 advancements and are making traction to dominate the global marketplace.
Anyone in manufacturing understands that being on the factory floor is no longer an entry-level “blue collar” job. The next generation of manufacturing workers will operate in “smart factories” and they’ll need to have advanced STEM skills and higher levels of education than was required just a decade ago. By 2018, 38 percent of workers in manufacturing will need at least some post-secondary education, according to the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce.
Industry 4.0 is a concept that is still foreign to many U.S. students, institutions and businesses. When Americans think of manufacturing, they are likely to imagine the assembly lines of yesterday, rather than emerging careers in clean technology, renewable energy and design engineering. Engaging students with relevant STEM curriculum, while painting a more accurate depiction of the manufacturing industry today, will open more doors as they look to careers of the future.
The first step in addressing the skills gap is understanding that it all comes back to career and technical education. Bridging the gap needs to start at a much earlier age — well before college. Middle and high school classrooms need STEM courses that keep up with industry advancements. They need hands-on learning with equipment that resembles the complex engineering systems they would see in the workplace. This type of early exposure benefits students by deepening their interest and understanding of STEM and prepares them to pursue postsecondary work as well as competitive, high paying jobs.
The good news is many manufacturing companies are taking a more active role with experiential learning in the classroom. There has been an increasing presence from employers when it comes to investing in STEM-related summer camps and competitions for middle school and high school students. These extracurricular activities provide younger students the opportunity to interact with professional engineers. The engineers serve as mentors while ensuring the training and curriculum is up-to-date and relevant to employers’ needs.
Employers are best poised to deliver the innovative technological solutions that educators and students need. Design engineers have the insights into how rapidly technology is advancing — therefore there’s a responsibility to share this information openly and regularly at the classroom-level. At the end of the day, it benefits everyone involved. If employers and educators don’t take bigger strides to achieve this together, the STEM gap will widen, and not enough students will have what they need to make strong connections in the classroom to actual workplace scenarios.
One hundred years ago, the vocational needs of the United States may have appeared vastly different, but the goals laid out in the Smith-Hughes Act still parallel the country’s need today for a highly trained industrial workforce that drives the U.S. economy. It’s time for employers to roll up their sleeves and do their part to close the employee skills gap so students can successfully transition from higher education to Industry 4.0 careers.
Thomas Lichtenberger is the CEO of Festo Didactic, Inc. a provider of advanced solutions for technical and industrial education.