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Workforce: Familiarity with Innovation Should Start in Kindergarten 

innovation mfg ren-fall 2013

Interview conducted by Rachel Duran

Institutional innovation builds public support and favorable policies for manufacturing.

From Dan Swinney’s viewpoint, one model for society is to combine technological innovation with institutional innovation. He says institutional innovation and investment in public education on advanced technology and STEM is not only the right thing to do, but essential to maintaining broad public support for pro-manufacturing policies.

Swinney is the executive director of Chicago-based Manufacturing Renaissance, formerly the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council. The organization has several initiatives underway to move manufacturing forward, including the Austin Polytechnical Academy and the Austin Manufacturing Innovation Park. The organization has also entered a teaming agreement with the American Institutes of Research’s education division. The group analyzes school systems and conducts evaluations, among other activities.

“We are in an agreement to combine their educational experiences and skill and capacity with our experience in manufacturing and careers and community engagement and partnerships,” Swinney says. “We are in the early stages of putting together for school systems around the country of what we call our polytechnical education model in place.” Early stage discussions are being held with school systems in Oakland, Calif., Mobile, Ala., Detroit and Baltimore.

“Our work has become the catalyst for the discussion around a manufacturing renaissance in Chicago,” Swinney says. “There is an enormous amount of momentum around our efforts, and the national discussion the past couple of years has become substantial on issues of manufacturing, education and workforce development and technology. Those are the things we have been positioned for during the last 30 years so there is interest in what we have to say and our various programs.”

We asked Swinney to detail why it is important to have a public agenda around manufacturing.

Dan Swinney:  In large part, the agenda around advanced manufacturing has been the agenda of private companies and people who work for those companies. There is recognition that there is a skills gap and there has to be investment in workforce development. These are all very important and we champion those ideas. 

Most people are not directly involved in manufacturing. So it is important to have a public agenda around manufacturing to see manufacturing as an essential way to build a broad base of industry, an  essential way to end poverty, and an essential way to address issues such as climate change. It will be addressed by new products and new processes that no longer emit carbon dioxide, for example.

In institutional innovation you build the essential broad base of public support and policies with an emphasis in production manufacturing. You have to have the combination of technological innovation and institutional innovation because if you don’t, people become polarized against new technology and this public investment and you do not have the support to sustain investment innovation.

Global Corporate Xpansion: In the summer you were part of a panel presenting to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, where you discussed linking education reform with technical innovation. Tell us about this.

Swinney: It was quite the honor to present to this council, which consists of 25 men and woman who are the direct advisors to the president on these issues. I was part of a panel with Erik Brynjolfsson, the co-author of Race Against the Machine. Their argument is if we are going to be competitive in advanced manufacturing we have to embrace modern technology; which the Manufacturing Renaissance believes in.

Brynjolfsson says when embracing modern technologies such as robotics, a lot of people are excluded from the process. There is a social consequence to high innovation and technology.

We believe if the United States is going to remain the global leader in manufacturing, the sector must stay at the cutting edge of advanced technology. Equally, there is the need for institutional innovation. This means the broader population must be included in the process, learning the technology in order to participate.

An example is Austin Polytech, where in the community we are promoting participation in advanced manufacturing, but we are also setting up public education institutions, which prepare various levels of the community. This includes high school students to community college students to adults to people returning from prison with the skills and education they need to be directly involved in and participate in that expansion.

If you did not have the schools like Austin Polytech and you brought in manufacturing, the residents of the community wouldn’t be hired in those new manufacturing firms, and would in fact be pushed further away. On the other hand, if you build the educational institution to reach the standards we have championed, the community participates and benefits.

Austin Polytech is a school that prepares students for college and careers. Austin used to have 20,000 manufacturing jobs 20 and 30 years ago; now it has 2,000. We are generating a steady stream of students with nationally recognized credentials in metalworking, and who are experienced in manufacturing, and who are seeking careers in manufacturing. Within the Austin community, during the last six or seven years, the educational infrastructure has been geared to the needs of modern advanced manufacturing for students and adults. We have the talent; we need the anchor companies, so we are developing the Austin Manufacturing Innovation Park, along with many partners.

The challenge for advanced manufacturing is that it is frequently referred to as a workforce development issue or a skills gap issue or a pipeline issue. They all have meaning and importance. But it is a much broader issue; the entire education system from K-20.

The park will be located at a 29-acre former Brach’s Co. site. JPMorgan Chase has invested substantially in funding the development phase of this project and is part of our leadership team that meets on a weekly basis. Other partners include World Business Chicago, which is Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s business organization, and Tri-State Alliance, which is a regional economic development planning effort with members from the Chicago region, southern Wisconsin and northwest Indiana.

The concept behind the innovation park is to bring anchor companies back to the Chicago area to take advantage of the talent we have. We are also creating partnerships with universities to bring in engineering expertise. This will be done in partnership with community colleges and Austin Polytech, so there is a workforce and education aspect.

We have also entered into three MOUs with manufacturing companies to actively engage in relocating to the Austin community. The companies would represent at least 300 new manufacturing jobs on the west side of Chicago. We are on the way to transforming the west side, restoring it to an income community as opposed to a symbol of urban blight. This would be the first new industrial development in the Austin community in the last 20 to 25 years.

We expect more partnerships with universities and labs in the next year, as well as completing the development phase and starting construction of the new site, getting much closer to the operating phase. We expect to aggressively bring manufacturing back to the Austin community — a concept most people thought would be unlikely.

This is community engagement, bringing universities and companies together in a comprehensive way to bring together the wherewithal to redevelop a community. We think this model can be replicated in other areas of the country.

Today there is such a preoccupation with celebrity, consumerism and sports, as if you can sustain a society as complex as the United States on those trends.

GCX: The Manufacturing Renaissance has made great strides, from creating a high school that focuses on manufacturing careers and college preparedness, to beginning an industrial park for advanced manufacturing companies. While presenting to the president’s council, you were also part of a brainstorming session about high school redesign, which included other sectors such as health care. What were the takeaways from the discussion?

Swinney: It was important because up to this point the president and administration have talked about STEM and advanced manufacturing in the context of postsecondary education, where a lot of the money invested in education has gone, and for all the right reasons.

But we have said this is much more than a workforce development problem. It is a question of education. We are at the beginning of an initiative by the administration to focus on high school education and its relationship to those issues.

Following the meeting in Washington, D.C., the president announced a proposal to Congress for $300 million to promote high school redesign throughout the country.

The challenge for advanced manufacturing is that it is frequently referred to as a workforce development issue or a skills gap issue or a pipeline issue. They all have meaning and importance. But it is a much broader issue; the entire education system from K-20.

And it is a broader cultural issue for society. In the last 30 years, for a number of complex reasons, a disdain has developed for people involved in production, that it is somehow a lesser role in society. Today there is such a preoccupation with celebrity, consumerism and sports, as if you can sustain a society as complex as the United States on those trends.

Other challenges include the demographic shift taking place with the baby boomers retiring, which affects not just production positions but also management positions. There is also a huge issue with changing ownership. The average age of owners is late 50s or early 60s. As baby boomers retire, these small companies are having trouble passing on assets.

In the large publicly traded companies succession is not an issue because you have investors and people who track these companies. However, 90 percent of manufacturing companies have less than 100 employees. And the supply chain, in their aggregate, represents the life blood of the manufacturing sector. They are hidden in plain sight. No one knows their names; they are not featured in business magazines.

GCX: How does the industry solve these challenges?

Swinney: Early on we conducted a study of 800 small companies headed by a principal 55 years or older. We found that 40 percent were at risk of closing only because of the issue of succession. This is why we need an education system that early on exposes young people to companies that have fascinating work and that are financially rewarding. It is problem solving. It is taking all types of social needs and issues and solving them through production.

The familiarity with thinking and innovation needs to start with kindergarten. There is a significant shift taking place in the thinking of the administration and our society as a whole that we have a deeper problem that needs to be addressed if we are going to keep our competitive position in the global economy.

To learn more about the Manufacturing Renaissance, visit www.mfgren.org. To learn about Austin Polytechnical Academy, visit www.austinpolytech.org.

Illustration by marin at Free Digital Photo.net

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About the author: Rachel Duran

Rachel Duran is the editor in chief for Global Corporate Xpansion. Contact her at rduran@latitude3.com.

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