Skilled Worker Shortage
Ford CTO Raj Nair speaking at the Brookings workshop last week Patrick Hayes/Kettering University

Ford CTO Raj Nair, speaking at the Brookings workshop last week.

Building a Better Advanced Manufacturing Workforce

At a recent Brookings Institution workshop in Flint, Mich., Ford, Toyota, Delphi and others discussed approaches to meeting their high-tech workforce needs.

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.”

Training as Continuous Improvement

In 2010, with thousands of anticipated unfilled skilled openings in manufacturing in Kentucky, Toyota launched an Advanced Manufacturing Technician program

at its Georgetown, Ky. Facility. Laid out in phases as a 20-year continuous improvement project, the initiative has expanded into 16 programs in eight states, a collaborative effort involving 19 community colleges, 160 to 180 companies and two two-year universities under the non-profit banner KY FAME.

Apprentices in the program, many recruited from local high schools (veterans and displaced workers from other industries are also in the mix), spend two days at school and three at work each week.

“The work-study component is completely interwoven,” said Dennis Dio Parker, the Toyota assistant manager who leads the AMT program. “We pay the students during their work time.” Pay is based on “there being enough money to completely pay for their college education. We don’t know of any who have graduated with college debt.”

There are still strides to make, Parker added. “We don’t have enough diversity, we don’t have enough minorities, we don’t have enough females. So we don’t have enough workers, and it also means our thinking is very narrow—we don’t’ have those multiple views.”

Reaching kids before they’re in junior and senior high school is an important piece of the Toyota project, which includes programming all the way from K-12—with different programs for elementary, middle and high schoolers, said Parker. Fifth and eighth graders specifically come in for plant tours, “so they can learn what manufacturing is, and we can get them excited about STEM.”

“We recognize that the poor perception of manufacturing is one of our key contributing problems,” Parker said. “There’s a bright kid but nobody’s telling them to go into manufacturing.”

To interest students in manufacturing careers, companies also have to reach teachers, counselors, school administrators and parents, Parker said. KY FAME partners do this through plant tours, school visits and videos targeted directly to parents and teachers.

In addition, “we are developing a program to bring in counselors specifically,” added Parker. “Counselors are really misinformed about what manufacturing is.”

What about Smaller Companies?

In regions that don’t have a Toyota, Ford or Siemens to rally around, community colleges can take the lead in skills development. Terri Sandu, executive director of workforce development at Lorain (Ohio) County Community College (LCCC), said part of her job is to educate small and medium manufacturers about “where they need to keep pace with technology. The rapid pace of change is very challenging to them.”

Battered in the 1980s by the loss of automotive jobs, the Lorain area saw a manufacturing resurgence two years ago. “We were very excited,” said Sandu.

But in the past few months, with the steel industry tanking, “all of those people have lost their jobs.” The region is dealing with a “loss of faith” in manufacturing.

“We have to be honest about that,” while simultaneously trying to bring more advanced manufacturing to the area and train a workforce for those jobs, said Sandu. It’s a tall order: LCCC offers dual enrollment with both high schools and four-year universities, to step up the training pace. The school is also building an advanced manufacturing center and is the first community  college in the country to have a “Fab Lab”—a community tinkering space with 3-D printers and other technologies.

Mike Hogan, associate dean of STEM at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC), in Charlotte, N.C., said that lacking a big-name company that “brings a lot of applications to the table,” smaller companies can join forces around shared competencies that they need, and partner with an educational institution to build curriculum “to start a pipeline.”

CPCC partners with manufacturers in a nationally recognized work-and-learn program called Apprenticeship 2000. Hogan explained that Apprenticeship 2000 is set up so the less company-specific skill sets are covered in the curriculum, and then apprentices learn the other 20 to 40% of more unique skills on the job at a particular company.

Hogan’s group is currently working on digitizing the first 10 courses of its mechatronics curriculum so students can study and learn on their own, then ask questions and fine-tune their learning in the classroom with hands-on equipment.

Dual enrollment is also key to the Central Piedmont partnership. Apprentices can go on earn an associate’s degree in mechanical engineering technology, preparing themselves for higher-paying careers in manufacturing and further filling the talent pipeline in the region.

“That’s a degree offering to generate engineers to move more into the university system,” said Hogan. “But they’re coming to us the first two years. Those are high-end students. Once they hit the doors of the university, they are very prepared.”

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