Where Will Manufacturers Find Tomorrow’s Workers?

Companies Struggle to STEM Receding Workforce Tide

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Automatio Fair 2011

By Aaron Hand

Manufacturing is the key driver to U.S. economic prosperity, according to Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF, www.itif.org), a non-partisan think tank for advancing technological innovation and productivity. But will manufacturing be the savior for the U.S. job market? No, says Bill Strauss, senior economist and economic advisor for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago (www.chicagofed.org).

Atkinson and Strauss both gave keynote presentations Tuesday morning at Manufacturing Perspectives, a forum for the industrial press corps at Rockwell Automation's Automation Fair this week in Chicago. Although Atkinson and Strauss were at odds on a few key points, they agreed that there is a serious lack of talent available to fill vacancies within the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) sector.

Coming out of one of the worst economic recessions in history, U.S. manufacturing has recovered half of the output loss since its peak year in 2007, Strauss noted, but the industry has added back only 300,000 of the 2.3 million lost jobs. That is not likely to change anytime soon, if ever. Unemployment stands at 9% today, with estimates that it will still be at 7% by 2014. "That's horrible," Strauss said. "If there's something that we can do to bring that lower, our president of the Chicago Fed thinks we should."

In fact, manufacturers say that they'd like to be hiring a whole lot more engineers and technicians, but the market lacks the skilled workers necessary to fill those positions. According to recent statistics, about 600,000 STEM-related vacancies remain unfilled in the United States, Strauss said, because manufacturing companies cannot find the skilled workers to fill them.

Automation really began taking off in the late 1970s. Those workers who were part of that first automation movement are now part of an aging workforce that is beginning to retire. "There is a lot of domain expertise beginning to abandon our space," noted John Nesi, vice president of market development for Rockwell Automation and moderator of a panel discussion on developing the future manufacturing workforce. In replacing those workers who understand what makes a company profitable as well as productive, the industry faces an educational dilemma as well as a PR problem with our young folks, Nesi added.

The skill set necessary is a combination of both education and experience, said Mary Isbister, president of GenMet, a metal fabricator based in Mequon, Wis. "They have to have the basic education necessary, but should also have the experience component," she said, noting how hard that is to find among today's young workers. "Most of them come without the work readiness skills on day one. They don't have the basic understanding of math, science, problem solving or even the basic work readiness skills of arriving to work on time."

There are issues with the education system in the United States, panelists said, based largely on a system that puts more importance on academic learning than on hands-on experience. Introducing applied learning in our schools could go a long way to helping kids get the practical experience they need, and also to get them excited about engineering, Isbister said. "It's a very important point to realize that kids these days sitting in a classroom watching a teacher up at a smart board don't appreciate math and science the way they would through applied learning," she said. In contrast, kids involved in hands-on education courses are excited about math. "They understand the connection between the work they're doing and trigonometry."

Irv McPhail, president and CEO of the National Action for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), agreed that hands-on, project-based learning goes a long way in capturing the imagination of students. The issue, however, runs even deeper, from his perspective. "Here in the United States, there is another demographic reality," he said, explaining that there is an increasing number of minorities that are not adequately participating in STEM workforce categories.

There is perhaps a STEM stigma in which the younger generation still sees manufacturing as a dirty job. "But larger than that, there's an engineering awareness conundrum," McPhail said. Many young minorities don't have an engineer in the family, or one living next door, he said, so they're simply not aware of the opportunities that are available.

There is a cultural challenge in the United States when it comes to turning young people on to the industrial sector, said Tom Duesterberg, executive director of the Manufacturing and Society in the 21st Century program at the Aspen Institute. "There's a cultural challenge not only with recruiting students, but with recruiting educational establishments as well."

That's not the case in Germany, where students can get practical experience working with companies through apprenticeship programs. "They do things to train people that we ought to think seriously about," he said. "There's a very clearly beneficial result, and you come out with a degree. Most students are almost guaranteed at least a couple of job offers." Japan, meanwhile, has a series of technical colleges that work closely with the industrial sector, Duesterberg explained, giving students practical experience.

Although there are "many, many reasons we can't just adopt the German model or any other foreign model," Duesterberg said, we do need to understand at a national level that the industrial sector is an important part of the economy.

That said, the United States certainly isn't the only country hurting for technical talent. "Even in places like China there are issues," Duesterberg said, explaining that the workforce is aging in the developing world as well as the developed world. "We often think that in India and China they're churning out engineers and technical workers. The population in China is not growing, though, and will actually begin to decline."

Alberto Alfonso, engineering manager at Goodyear Tire & Rubber, has been based in Pulandia, China, since 2009. "One of the things we discovered…was the same lack of skill in China," he said. "We have the same lack of mechanical, electrical, hydraulics knowledge." To find the technical skills it needed for a greenfield plant in China, Goodyear partnered with a local vocational school to create a training program. The program has developed 140 technicians so far, and Goodyear has plans to extend it to 200-250 technicians, Alfonso said.

Isbister expressed interest in a similar program in the United States. She seemed bothered, for example, when Alfonso detailed how Goodyear brings American teachers over to China to help develop the technical workforce there. "Why aren't they teaching our kids in the United States?" she asked.

The United States is not training enough scientists and engineers, Duesterberg agreed, although the country does at least have immigration as a competitive advantage. "But the quality of workers we need to fill these positions," he said, "is not what it should be."

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