New skills needed for new manufacturing technology

Advanced manufacturing has been identified by industry, government, and academia as an important driver of future economic growth in the U.S. According to its proponents, advanced manufacturing will provide high-paying jobs in regions that suffered from an exodus of traditional manufacturing jobs in the late 20th century. In order to fulfill this promise, the American workforce needs technical training in new manufacturing technologies. Ensuring that workforce skills keep pace with changing technology was one of the topics discussed at the 2015 John Hazen White Forum on Public Policy, held at the Brookings Institution on July 9.

Not your father’s manufacturing job

For much of the 20th Century, manufacturing provided stable incomes for many workers with only a high school education. As these jobs have increasingly moved offshore in search of lower-wage labor, a new kind of manufacturing job must take their place. As industry adopts increasingly sophisticated technologies, new manufacturing jobs require more advanced skills than are available at the high school level. The current gap between worker skills and industry needs has resulted in an estimated two million vacant manufacturing jobs in the U.S. Filling these jobs requires new mechanisms for training workers in advanced manufacturing technologies.

Advanced manufacturing covers a whole host of new industrial processes that improve upon traditional methods in quality, speed, and cost. High-performance computing harnesses substantial computing power to simulate real-world conditions in a virtual environment, allowing for relatively cheaper product testing. Additive manufacturing techniques like 3D printing provide a way to assemble customized products without having to reconfigure any machinery. Printing a product layer by layer also eliminates the waste that results from “subtractive” processes like milling, which sculpts a product from a larger block of material. These technologies dramatically reduce the time between designing and building a product, but mastering them requires specialized workforce training.

Changing the discussion

The panelists at the John White Forum spoke about the need for changing the public discussion of manufacturing and workforce preparation. Based on the history of dwindling manufacturing employment in the U.S., few parents want their children to train for manufacturing jobs. There is an insistence that every student attends a four-year college in spite of more flexible and less expensive education alternatives. Community colleges can teach students the skills they need to fill vacant manufacturing jobs in a relatively short amount of time. Indeed, many community colleges have already formed partnerships with local industry to match students with open positions. These partnerships should be encouraged to close a skills gap in manufacturing.

The stigma associated with manufacturing ignores newly available career opportunities, which may hurt U.S. economic competitiveness in the long run. American industry will need newly-trained workers to replace large numbers of retirees in the coming decades. The rapid pace of technological change makes updating worker skills ever more important. Now that industry, government, and academia have identified the promise of advanced manufacturing, they must also work together to ensure that American workers are equipped to fulfill that promise.

Watch video from the event here: