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Selling Manufacturing to a New Generation


6/2/2014 10:00 AM

By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer, The Pew Charitable Trust

Chris Ronsman, a junior at Green Bay West High School in Wisconsin, works at a manual lathe turning down a piece of aluminum round stock. Employers in many states are trying to encourage students to consider careers in manufacturing. (Green Bay West High School)
Manufacturers across the United States are targeting schools and colleges to let young people know there is more to manufacturing than pulling levers on an assembly line.

“People still have the idea that manufacturing is a dirty dungeon place,” said Andy Bushmaker of KI Furniture, a maker of school desks and cafeteria tables in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The goal, Bushmaker said, is to get people to see manufacturing jobs as the high-tech, high-skilled and high-paying careers they can be in the second decade of the 21 stcentury.

Today’s manufacturers, whether they are making cars, airplanes, or iPhone parts, are looking for engineers, designers, machinists and computer programmers. Manufacturing has moved from manual mills and lathes to computerized numerical control equipment and 3-D printers. Hand-held welders are being replaced with robotic welders. Industrial maintenance mechanics no longer need to know how to use a wrench, but have to be able to operate a “programmable logic control,” or a digital computer, to fix the machines.

Many of the jobs pay well—the average manufacturing worker in the United States earned $77,505 in 2012, including pay and benefits—but they can be hard to fill.

Nationwide, U.S. employers reported last year that skilled trades positions were the most difficult to fill, the fourth consecutive year this job has topped the list, according to the 2013 Manpower Group talent shortage survey. A 2011 industry report estimated that as many as 600,000 manufacturing jobs were vacant that year because employers couldn’t find the skilled workers to fill them, including machinists, distributors, technicians and industrial engineers.

In Wisconsin, manufacturers figure they will have to fill 700,000 vacancies over the next eight years because of retirements. Employers like KI Furniture are using an array of programs to attract people to fill the pipeline, including youth and adult apprenticeships, job training, even YouTube videos. KI’s own video includes an automation specialist who describes his work as, “the CSI of the automation world.”

Wisconsin is one of many states where employers, schools and chambers of commerce are working together—often with the help of state or federal grant money—to prepare students and the unemployed for hard-to-fill manufacturing jobs.

Elsewhere:

  • Teams of high school students in northeast Ohio get to design and build their own working robots with help from manufacturing companies as part of a “RoboBots” competition sponsored by Alliance for Working Together, a coalition of manufacturing companies. It has partnered with Lakeland Community College to develop a degree program working with an area high school to introduce an apprenticeship program starting in ninth grade.
  • In Massachusetts, Siemens, the global industrial giant, announced last month it would donate nearly $660 million in software to a dozen technical schools and colleges in Massachusetts to help train a new generation of workers in advanced manufacturing.
  • In Pittsburgh, the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board teamed up with Carnegie Mellon, local community colleges, unions and apprenticeship programs to develop a “virtual hiring hall” for advanced manufacturing under a $3 million federal “innovation” grant.

Industry leaders in Kansas, Georgia, Rhode Island and Delaware this month joined the “Dream It. Do It.” campaign started by the Manufacturing Institute, an affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers. The goal of the program, which now has participants in 29 states, is to recruit students into manufacturing by educating parents, teachers and counselors about employment opportunities.

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Source: The Pew Charitable Trusts