Posted on Jan 16, 2018

Educators, students, parents and manufacturers need a wake-up call. Technology education has improved manufacturing processes in recent years — sometimes in quantum leaps — but education isn’t keeping pace with the technological strides. And that’s leading to a talent gap that is becoming difficult to bridge.

There is a significant shrinking in the number of manufacturing workers. Part of the reason for the decline is that technology has eliminated many jobs. Another is a reduced interest in manufacturing work.

Stuck in the Industrial Age

Why? The manufacturing industry faces an image problem. There is a widespread perception that all jobs in the industry are dirty and dangerous, unstable, low-paying and likely to be the first sent offshore. As a result, young people don’t pursue careers in the field. This dampens motivation to expand education efforts.

Our education system places far too little emphasis on smart, connected product manufacturing, advanced material development and digital design integration in manufacturing. Instead it is stuck in the era of metalworking and welding.

As a result, students — your next potential employees — may not be aware of exciting developments like 3D prototyping and printing taking place within the industry. And those advances will create a multitude of new careers. It’s clean, exciting and challenging work, but few people know much about it.

Clearly, there is a pressing need for updates and improvements in education and training of manufacturing technology. But there is no real consensus on how to improve education and training in manufacturing. The industry is at a crossroads.

Currently, most technical training in the manufacturing field takes place at two-year technical, community or junior colleges. But there is little coordination between the schools, so the curriculums may veer all over the map. Little thought is given to a common goal.

In some cases, however, school programs link to companies involved in targeted manufacturing in certain parts of the country. For example, you may find education-company links in Rust Belt areas known for auto manufacturing and the Northwest for the aerospace industry. However, in regions where there is no dominant manufacturing force, two-year schools might not offer any courses in manufacturing technology.

The Online Role

Online education could play a more prominent role, but it’s been off to a slow start. Typically, online course are made available in computer programming, network management and other tech-driven studies. But manufacturing technology has been either minimal or nonexistent at most two-year colleges that offer online training.

There are exceptions. The Francis Tuttle Technology Center, based at three campuses within the Oklahoma City area, provides vocational and technical training to students, including middle-aged adults. The center offers several courses relating to manufacturing, such as advanced manufacturing, welding, precision machining and computer numerical control (CNC) programming. Some of the course work is done online.

Another example of progress is the Advanced Technology Education Center, an association of 39 specialized education organizations across the nation that focus on technical education. They generally target specific industries like auto manufacturing or are linked to a two-year community college.

Despite these inroads, the relative slow pace of advancement is frustrating. What’s more, the impact from education and training is far from immediate. There is a long lead time until educated workers actually make their mark in the workforce.

In the not-so-distant past, “replacement” employees in manufacturing were plentiful and turnover wasn’t as detrimental. Now it’s imperative for manufacturing firms to become more aggressive in strategic planning.

A Brighter Future?

If manufacturing is to be revitalized, with technology education gaining a stronger foothold, the various stakeholders must pitch in. To this end, here are six practical ways that can brighten the outlook.

1. Greater coordination is needed from federal, state and local government offices that can provide incentives to encourage manufacturing technology programs. If these branches of government work together, manufacturing technology training will be enhanced.

2. Manufacturing firms must reach out to junior and community colleges in an effort to stimulate education. Those colleges may not be fully aware of the shortage in trained workers and could be persuaded to pursue this avenue.

3. Two-year colleges should establish connections with businesses; it’s not a one-way street. By consulting with employers, the schools can structure curriculums to better match the needs and wants of the manufacturing sector.

4. Online education must be expanded on the college level. While this is particularly critical for the two-year schools where most manufacturing technology education takes place, it could be extended to include four-year colleges and universities.

5. Industry leaders need to show a more active presence, advocating for manufacturing technology education. Organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers may be able to strengthen the public profile, and increased publicity should lead to more interest in the sector.

By learning about the possibilities, including a chance at a rewarding and fulfilling career, students will be more inclined to pursue degrees in manufacturing technology or at least take courses relating to the discipline. Educational efforts can also help parents and school counselors better understand how students can benefit.

With all these stakeholders pulling together, education can move forward and begin to catch up with the technology, which continues to evolve at breakneck speed.

Changing Corporate Culture

A confluence of events has put the manufacturing industry in jeopardy, but advances in technology can stem the tide. The key is to work up from the ground floor to impart the knowledge and education required to take advantage of the new technology. This changing of the corporate culture is one of the main challenges facing manufacturers in the coming years.

Lessons from Abroad

Perhaps the United States can take a page out of the book of its foreign counterparts.

Technical education has a higher priority in other parts of the world, especially in the German-speaking enclave of Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Consider the common attributes in those three countries:

  • Early introduction of technology-based training to students,
  • Numerous internship or apprenticeship programs where on-the-job training is mixed with classroom courses,
  • Strong connections with employers,
  • Comparable educational offerings in different regions of the countries, and
  • A cultural tradition encouraging industrial and technical careers.

This priority put on technical education isn’t just limited to a small part of Europe. Other countries — including Australia, Mexico and the Scandinavian nations — emphasize vocational education. The U.S. should pick up the pace.