At first, Jay Timmons wondered if the students did not understand the question.
“How many of you are considering careers in manufacturing?” Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), asked a packed honors supply chain management class at the University of Kansas (KU) School of Business.
The students shifted in their seat. Not one raised a hand.
Timmons was prepared for a meager response—but not crickets chirping. Among millennials, outdated perceptions of manufacturing remain alarmingly entrenched. Many view manufacturing jobs as dark, dirty and dangerous, a caricature of what they were decades ago. Such perceptions could not be further from the reality of today’s industry. Manufacturing is sleek, it is high tech, and it is exciting. And manufacturing opens the doors to long-term, high-paying and deeply satisfying careers from the shop
floor to the C-suite.
As Timmons stood before the silent room, he had a vague feeling that he had been cast in a remake of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
Not that millennials would even know the reference.
Then Timmons had an idea.
“How many of you have smartphones?” he asked.
Heads nodded around the room.
Timmons took his own smartphone out of its case and held it up for the class.
“This is manufacturing,” he said.
Timmons was talking about the product and its various component parts, of course. But he also meant the intensive research and development that turns ideas into something tangible that the students could hold in their hands. He meant the engineering, design, finance, marketing and numerous other roles that support production lines in the United States.
Suddenly, the idea of manufacturing became appealing as students grasped the reality of what a career in modern manufacturing really means.
After class let out for the day, Timmons continued to educate students on the nation’s manufacturing legacy, urging them to reexamine their perceptions of what manufacturing is in this age.
“There’s no shortage of different paths within manufacturing—from satellite technology to breakthroughs in lifesaving medical devices or energy advances that could power the world,” he said as the featured lecturer in KU’s Anderson W. Chandler Lecture Series that evening. “In manufacturing, you have the chance to invent, to create and to bring innovation to the lives of those in need. It’s a bright future with expansive opportunity.”
Students can only grasp that future, however, if they have the right skills to succeed in modern manufacturing. All too often, they are unprepared.
Nationwide, more classrooms than not have traditionally failed to adequately emphasize science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. That only contributes to the skills gap that has left more than 80 percent of manufacturers with a moderate to severe shortage of highly skilled workers. On average, manufacturers lose 11 percent of their earnings because of increased costs from production delays, wasted materials and shutdowns associated with the skills gap, primarily the STEM skills. Even as millennials confront a significant unemployment rate, manufacturers and other businesses across the United States are facing a critical shortage of human talent.
Some educational institutions are realizing that things do not have to be this way—and changing their tune on STEM education. They would be wise to model their programs after Georgia Southern University, a longtime bastion of STEM and an innovator among its counterparts.
For three decades, Georgia Southern has turned out work-ready mechanical, electrical and civil engineering graduates who are as proficient in using a computer as they are a welding machine, President Brooks Keel said in an interview with Member Focus. Three years ago, Georgia Southern elevated these programs to confer full-time bachelor’s degrees. Yet, such action wasn’t enough to meet the evolving workforce demands of the manufacturing comeback.
“As we have been talking with industry, what we’re hearing is that even though our students were well-trained generalists, there were still some skills that were missing,” Keel said. “If we could focus those skills around the manufacturing sector, we could better serve the workforce needs in south Georgia and the whole southeastern United States.”
Keel and his fellow administrators began to consider their options and examine other programs. They were shocked by what they found: There were less than two dozen certified manufacturing engineering programs at the bachelor’s level—and nothing in the Southeast.
That is about to change as Georgia Southern prepares to launch the first undergraduate manufacturing engineering degree program in the state and the region. The program will enroll its first students in fall 2015. Already, expectations are high.
“We’re working with industry now to help us determine how the curriculum should build on our hands-on culture,” Keel said. “Coupled with the concept of increasing internships and especially co-ops, we think we’ll be able to produce students with the exact skillset that is needed today and will be needed five years from now. The program that we put in place has to be flexible, which is why it’s absolutely critical that we have a day-to-day working relationship with industry.”
Overwhelmingly, manufacturers are recognizing their leadership role in this working relationship. Just ask Accu-Router, an NAM member company based in Warren County, Tennessee. Accu-Router President Todd Herzog prides his company on working with government officials, businesses and educators to launch a three-tiered program in mechatronics: the systemization of electronics, computer technology, mechanics and pneumatics/hydraulics.
As chair of the county’s Business Roundtable, Herzog recognized the importance, and the impact, of these partnerships. The local Business Roundtable has led the thrust behind mechatronics in the county, and Accu-Router is one of its many active members. “We got together, and we made it happen,” Herzog told Member Focus.
Mechatronics started as a level-one certificate program at nearby Motlow State Community College with only a dozen students in 2010. To say it has expanded significantly since that time would be an understatement. Motlow now offers a level-two associate’s degree in mechatronics—and schedules many classes in the evening for students with full-time jobs. “Each step up offers more qualifications to obtain an even more desirable career,” Herzog said.
Today, there are 150 students taking various mechatronics courses at Motlow, at the level-three bachelor’s degree program at Middle Tennessee State University and at the in-house level-one program at Warren County High School—the first such start-up in the United States. Collective fundraising efforts have raised about $4.2 million for mechatronics, including three federal grants and $900,000 worth of advanced equipment at Motlow’s McMinnville campus and at the high school.
With such skilled talent readily available, companies in the county and beyond are recruiting students before they graduate, said Motlow Director of Career Readiness Fred Rascoe. “We are creating opportunities for students and a talent pipeline for manufacturers,” he said.
That pipeline will pick up, or run dry, depending on whether manufacturers follow Accu-Router’s example and take the lead in workforce development initiatives. Manufacturers, after all, are the experts in the workforce they need to bolster their competitiveness in an increasingly global marketplace. “They are the innovators and entrepreneurs, the builders and producers, the dreamers and leaders of America,” Timmons said in his KU speech. And they set the gold standard for the next generation of manufacturers.
A Toolkit for the Manufacturing Workforce
Marking the culmination of a yearlong effort to improve workforce preparedness and capabilities, the NAM's board-level Task Force on Competitiveness & the Workforce released an action plan and toolkit with an eye on results, creativity and hands-on involvement. These resources will help manufacturing leaders collaborate in their local communities to determine the key competencies needed for new hires to succeed in today's advanced manufacturing operations, develop a plan for local workforce training providers to deliver the needed training and grow a pipeline to ensure a supply of future skilled talent. Visit www.nam.org/mfgworkforce for more information.
Join the NAM's social media campaign to reach and motivate the next generation of manufacturing employees. You can share NAM workforce development resources on Facebook and Twitter by including #WeAreMFG on all of your posts.