Factories are changing, and so are the jobs within. At Ford, automotive body construction is increasingly robotic—95% of the process is automated, says Chief Technology Officer Raj Nair, and the people who work on the line are highly trained and specialized technicians.

At the aluminum manufacturer Alcoa, materials engineers now make up more new hires than mechanical engineers, a first in the company’’s 127-year history. Last year, Alcoa split into two companies. The spinoff, Arconic, is focused on technological innovation and the development of new materials. One of the latest breakthroughs is micromills that accomplish in 20 minutes—with a much smaller footprint—what used to take 20 days: transforming molten metal into rolled coiled product.

Alcoa is also in need of software engineers and, as it begins work with Airbus to provide 3-D-printed titanium fuselage parts, more workers with technical skills around 3-D printing.  In those needs, they’re not alone. In Michigan, online postings for software jobs in manufacturing tripled from 1,554 in 2010 to 5,000 in 2015, more than postings for mechanical, manufacturing and industrial engineers. And those jobs typically take longer to fill than jobs overall, according to data provided by Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director at the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution, the nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington.

A Meeting of the Minds

To brainstorm and help shape policy around manufacturing’s talent needs in the Midwest, both dire and projected, academic, government and industry leaders  gathered last week at a Brookings workshop, led by Muro, at Kettering University in Flint, Mich. They toured a crash-sled facility at the school, checked out an old gym reimagined as a FIRST Robotics facility (the only one within a college campus), and shared their best practices and struggles in recruiting, training and retaining good people for manufacturing technology careers.

Some soul-searching happened, too. Allyson Knox, director of education policy and programs at Microsoft, wondered whether STEM investments in the high schools had enough long-term impact. Ford’s Nair said that from what he’s seen, U.S. universities are the best in the world at training engineers, but not enough U.S. students are coming out of high school prepared for engineering school. And Delphi’s Vice President of Engineering, Mary Gustanski, said she was concerned about the caliber of U.S. engineers and has been looking to Romania, Poland, China and Mexico to fill that void.

Panelists talked about the need to improve high school STEM preparation and how industry can more effectively reach out to schools; the importance of creating more industry-specific training through apprenticeships, co-ops, internships and e-learning; and how small and medium-sized manufacturing companies can become part of the pipeline for technology training.

Instead of the old days of “post and pray”—publish a job ad and leave it to a higher power that someone good comes along—companies that want good advanced manufacturing have to actively seek and pursue it, said David Milbourne, Alcoa’s vice president for talent management.

Toward that end, Alcoa has quadrupled its internships in the past three years at its Technology Center in New Castle, Penn. The company is also partnering with a community college to train 60 students for jobs in additive manufacturing/3-D printing in New Castle.

Once they have talent, manufacturers need to be “constantly be replenishing,” added Milbourne.

“We need to recognize fact that people like to change and move around in their careers,” he said. “If we get them for 3 to 5 years, we’re probably doing somewhat well.”