How to Build a Skilled Workforce

There Is Perhaps a STEM Stigma in Which the Younger Generation Still Sees Manufacturing as a Dirty Job

Aaron HandBy Aaron Hand, Managing Editor

Manufacturing is the key driver to U.S. economic prosperity, according to Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF, www.itif.org). But will manufacturing be the savior for the U.S. job market? No, says Bill Strauss, senior economist and economic advisor for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago (www.chicagofed.org).

Atkinson and Strauss both gave keynote presentations at Manufacturing Perspectives, a forum for the industrial press corps at Rockwell's Automation Fair in November. Although Atkinson and Strauss were at odds on a few key points (Atkinson, for example, thinks "economists are ruining thinking"), they agreed that there is a serious lack of talent available to fill vacancies within the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) sector.

I've talked here previously about various efforts in STEM education, as well as concerns about filling STEM-related jobs. The topic is a contentious one perhaps because it hits so close to home. As Strauss noted, U.S. manufacturing has recovered half of the output loss since its peak year in 2007, but the industry has added back only 300,000 of the 2.3 million lost jobs. That is not likely to change anytime soon, if ever. Unemployment stands at 9% today, with estimates that it will still be at 7% by 2014.

In fact, manufacturers say that they'd like to be hiring a whole lot more engineers and technicians, but the market lacks the skilled workers necessary to fill those positions. According to recent statistics, about 600,000 STEM-related vacancies remain unfilled in the U.S., Strauss said, because manufacturing companies cannot find the skilled workers to fill them. A panel of industry executives at Manufacturing Perspectives expressed considerable concern about their ability to fill skilled positions.

The skill set necessary is a combination of both education and experience, said Mary Isbister, president of GenMet, a metal fabricator in Mequon, Wis. "They have to have the basic education necessary, but should also have the experience component," she said, noting how hard that is to find among today's young workers. "Most of them come without the work readiness skills on day one. They don't have the basic understanding of math, science, problem solving, or even the basic work readiness skills of arriving to work on time."

There are issues with the education system in the U.S., panelists said, based largely on a system that puts more importance on academic learning than on hands-on experience. Introducing applied learning in our schools could go a long way to helping kids get the practical experience they need, and also to get them excited about engineering, Isbister said. "It's a very important point to realize that kids these days sitting in a classroom watching a teacher up at a smart board don't appreciate math and science the way they would through applied learning," she said. In contrast, kids involved in hands-on education courses are excited about math. "They understand the connection between the work they're doing and trigonometry."

There is perhaps a STEM stigma in which the younger generation still sees manufacturing as a dirty job. "But larger than that, there's an engineering awareness conundrum," said Irv McPhail, president and CEO of the National Action for Minorities in Engineering (NACME). Many young minorities, for example, don't have an engineer in the family, or one living next door, he said, so they're simply not aware of the opportunities that are available.

There is a cultural challenge in the U.S. when it comes to turning young people on to the industrial sector, said Tom Duesterberg, executive director of the Manufacturing and Society in the 21st Century program at the Aspen Institute. "There's a cultural challenge not only with recruiting students, but with recruiting educational establishments as well."

That's not the case in Germany, where students can get practical experience working with companies through apprenticeship programs. In Japan, technical colleges work closely with the industrial sector, Duesterberg explained, giving students practical experience. Although there are "many, many reasons we can't just adopt the German model or any other foreign model," he said, we do need to understand at a national level that the industrial sector is an important part of the economy. 

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