For the Love of Manufacturing

18 Feb

The role of manufacturing in the global economy is changing. For years, technology has supplanted less-skilled work that used to be performed by humans. So-called “smart machines” are threatening to eradicate scads of high-skilled, middle class, and professional jobs that once seemed safe. At the national level, there has been much debate about how best to harness these advances in technology and productivity while still retaining the manufacturing sector as a critical component to build (and sustain) the U.S. middle class. As we’re grappling with how best to deal with the realities of the manufacturing sector, let’s look at some interventions that show potential to connect trained workers with advanced manufacturing jobs. The ideas that are gaining the most traction bring the public and private sectors to the table to help design worker training programs that meet the specific needs of today’s employers.

In his State of the Union address, the President announced the formation of three Institutes of Manufacturing that would be part of a larger, nationwide Network for Manufacturing Innovation. These institutes would function as public-private partnerships, with the government and educational institutions pitching in financing and resources to supplement research and development for emerging technologies like additive manufacturing (or “3-D printing” in layperson terms). In addition, these Manufacturing Institutes would offer job training that is aimed at preparing workers for jobs in these emerging fields.

The first of these institutes in Youngstown, Ohio is focused on making the 3-D printing process a mainstream component in U.S. manufacturing. Additive manufacturing involves creating a three-dimensional object by adding successive layers of material in different shapes. It’s often used to create prototypes, but it still remains too expensive to be used as a method for large-scale production. The National Additive Manufacturing Institute in Youngstown, with the backing of federal funds, manufacturing firms, universities, community colleges, and nonprofit organizations, has committed over $85 million in resources to help bring this technology to scale in the U.S. The far-reaching effort has been named one of Brookings “Top Ten Most Innovative Economic Development Initiatives” and is being touted as a model that can be implemented in other regions hard-hit by manufacturing’s decline.

On the vocational training front, Austin Polytechnical Academy in Chicago employs a high school curriculum geared at educating students and equipping them the skills needed to obtain high-skilled jobs in the manufacturing sector. The program is geared towards preparing students “to fill some of the nation’s estimated three million vacant positions in science, technology, engineering and math.” The curriculum relies on the engagement of the private sector to help train and recruit students through job shadowing, summer job, and internship opportunities. Austin Polytechnical also aims to get students industry-recognized certifications as well. Graduates can go directly into the workforce after graduation or pursue a college education.

Continuing the thread of prioritizing training opportunities, German manufacturers have brought their world-renowned vocational training methods to U.S. shores. Companies like Volkswagen, BMW, and Siemens are all working with local community colleges near their U.S. factories to train workers in manufacturing techniques. In Chattanooga, Volkswagen has implemented a three-year apprenticeship program “to ensure it has skilled workers to maintain and troubleshoot the car maker’s high-tech robotics and assembly line systems.” Unlike Germany, the U.S. does not have a system in place that allows many of our workers to be trained through private sector partnerships, trade schools, or guilds. The Wall Street Journal reports that last year, “German companies took on and trained nearly 600,000 paid apprentices.” That can be a harder sell in the U.S. where many companies are hesitant to invest large sums to train workers that may end up leaving for a competitor. A collaborative model, with subsidies from the public sector to help finance worker training, can help companies offset these costs.

The examples above provide a snapshot of the different techniques that policymakers, businesses, and educational institutions are using to help fill an estimated 600,000 skilled manufacturing positions that are currently up for grabs. The common theme for each of these economic development tools is coordination between businesses, institutions, and the public sector. The calculus seems pretty simple: pooling resources can help the U.S. lead in advanced manufacturing and production, which helps enrich us all.

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