The United States needs to establish a “continuum of learning” so workers can keep up with a rapidly changing and increasingly technical manufacturing environment, the co-chairs of a commission that is focusing on job creation for small- and medium-sized manufacturers, told a University of Virginia audience today.

Former Gov. Haley Barbour, R-Miss., and former Gov. and Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., are co-chairing the University of Virginia Miller Center commission, part of an effort to address challenges facing America’s middle class. The two veteran politicians stressed their experience as governors who had to get things done and promised the commission’s recommendations would not require major new government programs.

But Bayh noted that U.S. manufacturers face a “challenging environment” in which they must be “nimble, quick, smart, innovative, and constantly improving.” Some small- and medium-sized manufacturers are necessarily focused on the day-to-day activities that keep them operating, he said, and don’t have the resources to “maximize their potential for innovation and job creation without the right kind of public policy.”

Advanced manufacturing has created the need for employees with skills much different from a generation ago, both politicians stressed.

“Thirty years ago, you could drop out of high school, go to a local auto plant or a local steel mill and have a pretty good standard of living. That was doable,” said Bayh. “Not today. Today, you get paid for what you know.”

With equipment on the plant floor changing dramatically, Barbour said manufacturing workers will have to be “retrained and retrained and retrained and retrained.”

Bayh said the commission’s recommendations will include provisions for a “continuum of learning” so that students who pursue vocational training can more readily pursue additional education at a later date.

Over the last 50 years, noted Barbour, educational attainment and economic success have been “almost absolutely in sync with each other.” More schooling led to higher earnings.

But many people would be better off if they started skills training early, said Barbour. “We have been teaching our children for a generation that if you don’t go to college, something is wrong with you. That is wrong,” he said. He said the country needed to fight the "stigma" that has grown around vocational education.

Innovation is key, Barbour said, to increases in productivity that will keep the U.S. competitive in the global marketplace and to a strong comeback by American manufacturing. But he said companies that don’t have a skilled workforce to deploy innovative technologies “won’t have any productivity gains.”

The commission will publish its recommendations next month. Bayh and Barbour offered a preview of some of the ideas, which they said will be focused more at the state and local level:

Talent Investment Loans – These loans would be made to small businesses to acquire and train talent rather than to invest in equipment. Barbour said these short-term SBA-style loans would help small employers that don’t have the money to invest in training skilled employees to operate and manage advanced technologies.

Upside down Degrees – Students who complete a two-year technical degree will be able to apply that work to a four-year bachelor’s degree program. The term refers to the fact that students normally proceed from more general studies to specialized studies, but students with a technical degree reverse that order. Barbour and Bayh said there should also be provisions to help military personnel with technical skills.

Skills Census – Surveys of employers would be conducted to make sure that students are being educated in the skills that employers actually need. “It is matching up good paying jobs and the skills that are required with the training programs,” Bayh said.

National Supply Chain Initiative – This program would attempt to connect small and medium-size suppliers with large companies. Barbour noted that shipping is a significant cost to companies, so a program that could help them locate local suppliers would benefit both sides.