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Filling the Next Gen Manufacturing Jobs Gap 

mfg no. 1-winter 2013

By David Hodes

Manufacturers need to take a complex view and constantly innovate.

The future of manufacturing in the United States is all about advances — everything from wind turbines to biomedical devices to parts for missiles and for the robots that make those parts. The industry demands a better trained and educated workforce, who will earn salaries and benefits that developing countries can’t match.

There are well-paying advanced manufacturing jobs available — with salaries in the $65,000 a year range. But there’s a problem.

The hold-up in filling these jobs by a qualified workforce — represented by the so-called job skills gap — has widened because training for advanced manufacturing has fallen short in completing the cycle of accreditation required by employers looking to hire more highly-skilled workers.

The educational system and the workforce development network have stepped up collaborative efforts to fill the job skills gap in advanced manufacturing. And that relief is coming just in time because one of the biggest realities facing manufacturers is that baby boomers will be retiring in droves very soon — deepening the employment gap divide in high-tech manufacturing exponentially. Their retirement might also mean some companies may lose competitive advantages, creating a ripple effect that could add another obstacle to economic recovery.

One program that is proactively assisting workforce development comes from a major expansion of Skills for America’s Future, an industry-led initiative to dramatically improve industry partnerships with community colleges and build a nationwide network to maximize workforce development. An aspect of this expansion is the Manufacturing Skills Certification System, developed to give students the opportunity to earn manufacturing credentials that will allow students and workers to access pathways in community colleges in 30 states as a for-credit program of study.

The goal of the system is to have 500,000 people with industry certification by 2016. Brent Weil, senior vice president and treasurer of the Manufacturing Institute, says the program had 85,000 people in the first year and is on track to hit its goal.

There are certification programs going on in nearly every state and the Manufacturing Institute is working with 113 community colleges that are aligning to those needs on behalf of the manufacturers, Weil says.

In Chicago, a strong partnership between education and advanced manufacturing companies continues to gain momentum. The metro is home to some of the country’s oldest and most established manufacturing businesses.

The Austin Polytechnical Academy (APA) has been operating on the west side of Chicago since 2007. APA is an initiative of the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council (CMRC), which is a coalition of business, labor, government and community leaders working to position Chicago as the center of advanced manufacturing.

APA is a college and career prep high school with a focus on manufacturing and engineering, where students learn real world skills in advanced manufacturing, such as hands-on training on CNC machines.

APA has partnered with more than 60 local manufacturing companies to give high schoolers the edge they need as entry-level employees who have demonstrated an aptitude and interest in advanced manufacturing. Already, 125 APA students have earned National Institute for Metalworking Skills credentials, a basic requirement for working in advanced manufacturing environments today.

Dan Swinney, executive director of the CMRC, says the reason APA has so many companies partnering with the school is simply because “they need to solve that labor market problem of needing a higher skilled worker,” he says.

The companies need to not only provide training for their incumbent workforce, they also require a higher level of skilled workers to fill entry-level positions.  Also important is developing a more formalized system that is “clearly articulated with our secondary and postsecondary educational systems,” Swinney says.

Zach Mottl, director of development for the 94-year-old Atlas Tool & Die Works Inc., in Lyons, Ill., (a Chicago suburb), says due to the precision work they do for aerospace and missile and telecom systems, “you can’t pick someone off the streets and have them operate machines and equipment,” Mottl says.

As an example, a junior in high school who enters a manufacturing program in high school similar to what APA provides takes courses such as math, some engineering and some machining. In Swinney’s vision, the student would be dual enrolled at a local college or community college, accumulating college credits.

“Then you begin to have a real system that is articulated, that goes through various stages and has a predictable output for both the employer as well as the student,” Swinney says. “And then you will begin to have a coherent educational system linked to manufacturing.”

One established precision manufacturing business in Chicago working directly with the APA is the 63-year-old WaterSaver Faucet Co., makers of specialized valves and faucets used in science labs. The company, working with other investors, established the WaterSaver Faucet Co. Manufacturing Technology Center on the APA campus in 2011.

WaterSaver President Steve Kersten, who is also co-chairman of the CMRC, says his company has jobs that range a wide spectrum of positions in manufacturing, from CNC machining to parts polishing and buffing to chrome plating and powder coating. “So we have to attack this issue of how do we get good people in the door who can do all of these things,” he says. “You can’t just assume that the world is producing these people anymore and that they will be available when you need them.”

Zach Mottl, director of development for the 94-year-old Atlas Tool & Die Works Inc., in Lyons, Ill., (a Chicago suburb), says due to the precision work they do for aerospace and missile and telecom systems, “you can’t pick someone off the streets and have them operate machines and equipment,” Mottl says. “We are a fast-paced business and are always working on tight deadlines for jobs. It’s a competitive environment where you have to be competitive on cost and delivery so we need highly trained people who can set up and operate our equipment.”

Mottl hired one student out of CMRC who has already enrolled in a higher level CNC course through the National Tooling and Machining Association. “These kids that are coming out of CMRC are young and just graduating high school,” he says. “They have shown an interest in working in manufacturing and they have gone to this as a path. And then we can train them with our specifics and take them to a higher level with programming.”

It’s clear that larger cities in the Midwest — Chicago and Detroit in particular — which have been hit hard by manufacturing downturns are rebuilding as centers of advanced manufacturing. The Southeast United States is another part of the country where manufacturing decline and outsourcing has created the need for workers who can respond to changes as the manufacturing sector continues to evolve.

Will Williams, executive director of the Aiken-Edgefield Economic Development Partnership and co-chair of the professional development committee for the South Carolina Economic Developers’ Association (SCEDA), says an area needs more than industrial sites and well-developed infrastructure. “It’s the people who make the company actually go,” Williams says.

In Aiken and Edgefield counties, manufacturers such as the Kimberly-Clark Corp., Urban Outfitters and Bridgestone Americas Inc., are seeking well-trained workers. Bridgestone is currently working on three expansions in the area totaling $1.2 billion and creating 850 new manufacturing jobs.

Williams says the SCEDA is performing a workforce study that has a two-fold purpose: determine where to focus efforts as retirees leave the workforce; and increase the awareness of the viability of manufacturing employment to help young people understand what they need to do to be ready for a job in manufacturing.

The effort to feed better-trained workers into the pipeline is also a growing concern in Jonesboro, Ark. In October 2010, Nordex USA Inc., opened its $40 million flagship wind turbine manufacturing plant in Jonesboro. The total planned investment for the site is $100 million, with the addition of manufacturing capacity.

Nordex has the potential to create a total of 700 jobs in Jonesboro and 1,000 nationally during the next four years. The company has built a 10,000-square-foot training academy at its Jonesboro site, and has formed a partnership with Arkansas State University to teach mechatronic skills, which combine mechanical and electrical skill sets.

Jonesboro also features a world-class, rail-served 1,730-acre technology park (Craighead), home to companies such as Nestle and Frito- Lay, says Shelle Randall, director of workforce development and existing industry for the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce. “I visit a certain number of our industrial companies here and try to understand what they see, what they need right now as far as skills and support for their workforce,” Randall says. “There is such a broad range of opportunities in a manufacturing facility; from human resources managers to marketing to scientists to quality engineers.”

It has become clear that advances in manufacturing technology require well- prepared and certified talent who can step in and begin performing from day one. “You have an intersection of modern science and new technologies and new ideas happening,” Swinney says. Wind turbines have 8,000 components, he says, all of which have to be precisely made because a wind turbine operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“The whole notion of advanced manufacturing is approaching any aspect of manufacturing, whether it is the supply chain or the customer base or the product — really taking a complex view that is looking for constant innovation, constant higher speed, higher efficiency, higher precision no matter what the product is,” Swinney says.

Illustration by Stuart Miles at Free Digital Photos.net

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About the author: David Hodes

David Hodes is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at dhodes11@gmail.com.

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