Manufacturing’s Renaissance Depends On Skilled Workers

Global shifts in costs, processes and consumer purchasing habits put the U.S. in a position to revitalizing its manufacturing sector and enhance businesses and industry at home. The only thing missing is enough skilled workers to maintain the momentum.

Philip Odette, President, Global Supply Chain SolutionsGlobal shifts in costs, processes and consumer purchasing habits put the U.S. in a position to revitalizing its manufacturing sector and enhance businesses and industry at home.

The only thing missing is enough skilled workers to maintain the momentum.

The average U.S. manufacturing worker is in their late 40s or early 50s, so many will be retiring in the next 10 to 15 years. While many states and universities have developed programs that train some workers in specific industries or for specific companies, there is no major program to point to that has solved the industry-wide issue.

The Task at Hand

Under the guidance of the National Association of Manufacturers, GE Appliances President and CEO Chip Blankenship has been selected to head a team that will try to address the problem in ways that can be applied to multiple sectors and states.

The ideas so far are outgrowths of existing plans:

  • Increase partnerships with government bodies;
  • Develop training programs with schools and colleges;
  • Encourage students to earn engineering and technology degrees;
  • Organize businesses to create training;
  • Create incentives for existing workers to retrain for positions.

One of the biggest focuses will be encouraging students to study technology that relates to manufacturing and engineers. The U.S. can become a hub of innovation for developing and building the robots that may operate the manufacturing lines of tomorrow.

Blankenship was right when he said future workers that invest their skills in domestic manufacturing “could be the saviors of our nation’s economy.”

Making Manufacturing Day Every Day

October 4 was National Manufacturing Day, where roughly 800 manufacturers across the U.S. allowed high school students, teachers and local government officials to observe plant operations. The goal is to provide students with an idea of career options and show teachers what skills are used in these positions.

Many of the tours and operations focused on advanced tools and techniques that drive today’s manufacturing process. Crane & Co. was able to attract national headlines by inviting Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick to tour the roughly 250-year-old company’s operations alongside school officials.

Crane is working with Massachusetts community colleges and MIT to develop training courses around the precision manufacturing used by Crane and others in the area. Its eventual goal is to expand this program beyond the state’s borders.

Advancements have helped precision manufacturing thrive in a “quiet” renaissance, and Gov. Patrick gave a perfect rallying cry or the industry: “It's time to make that renaissance a whole lot less quiet.”

MIT and other universities already use free digital services to share their lesson plans. Apple offers iTunes University, a program manufacturers themselves can use.

Even something as simple as recording yourself demonstrating a process can boost the credibility of your company and increase its presence in the minds of students and teachers in your local area. Videos of new equipment or an impressive process don’t have to be reserved to sales pitches — they can be investments in attracting a new workforce.

Governmental Support

The current administration has pledged a lot of money in various ways to increase the availability of manufacturing education programs and U.S. jobs. These have included a $1 billion plan to develop a national network of manufacturing innovation, with multiple research pilots already off the ground in places like Youngstown, Ohio.

These manufacturing centers — between 15 and 45 will be created — will focus on new technologies for different industries, with the Youngstown pilot focusing on additive manufacturing. Unfortunately, experts have noted that these institutes will not be self-sustaining without continued tax dollars and manufacturer support.

Pairing with these centers can help manufacturers ensure a skilled workforce for their existing equipment as well as guarantee new employees that will have first-hand experience on new technology added to the assembly process.

For example, as the automakers start to see increased sales in their newer models and the overall market picks back up, the pilot institute for lightweight metal manufacturing can help train workers on the equipment and processes that can make vehicles cheaper and increase their gas mileage.

The administration has also gone direct to businesses without an education component through challenges and plans for goods to be made in America. This includes a $40 million initiative launched in the third quarter of 2012.

Secondary Skilled Workers

Not all of the skilled workers that manufacturing’s future depends on will come in the warehouses, loading docks or assembly lines that most expect. Our oil field, natural gas and other energy workers are providing manufacturing a boost by decreasing the cost it takes to power manufacturing operations.

Production of shale gas in the U.S. has increased by tenfold since 2003 and its wholesale price has dropped by more than half since 2005, according to the Boston Consulting Group. Natural gas presently costs between 2.6 and 3.8 times higher in Japan and Europe compared to the U.S.

Further improvements will lead to an increase in demand for skilled workers in energy-heavy industry such as paper and metals as well as for workers in industries that rely on natural gas for the creation of plastics and chemicals, says the BCG.

A recent study by IHS Global Insight says the expansion of natural gas and unconventional oil sources, largely from hydraulic fracturing, will create an additional 515,000 manufacturing jobs by 2025 just to support that industry.

The Next Generation of Work

While it’s easy to rely solely on a 3D-printed chair to change thoughts about the work, manufacturing must also change the image of its workers.

The landscape is shifting to fewer jobs on the floor, but by-and-large they’re better jobs. They also require access to better equipment and the skills to run it. Manufacturing needs as much talent as it does hands.

The highest paid new college graduates are chemical manufacturing engineers, and manufacturing workers have the highest job tenure in the private sector, according to a NAM study. It also found that the average manufacturing worker makes nearly $17,000 more per year than the average worker across all industries.

We all know manufacturing isn’t menial, and it’s time to show that to the rest of the country.

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