Look at the list of Nobel Prize winners for the last 50 years and one trend is clear: The U.S. has dominated the world when it comes to advances in math and science. Since 1956, nearly 60% of math and science laureates have been Americans. Our society -- and people across the planet -- have benefited from this mighty technological edge, which has extended into engineering and manufacturing.
America's brain power provides many of the products we take for granted, from cell phones to pre-packaged foods and stain-resistant fabrics. We've gotten accustomed to "having it all" and having it all faster, smaller and sleeker.
But today, workforce issues are challenging America's manufacturing industry. The majority of U.S. manufacturers face a serious shortage of skilled employees. This deficit threatens to stunt development of new technologies and improvements of existing products. The result could weaken economic growth in the U.S. and around the world.
Several factors contribute to this problem. Nearly 30% of people with science and engineering degrees in the labor force are age 50 or older. Those skilled Baby Boomers will continue to retire in the next 10 to 15 years.
Meanwhile, global competition, the fast pace of technological advances and rising requirements for manufacturers mean professionals in the industry must be smarter and possess a wider range of skills.
The solution to this problem seems simple: Educate and train the next generation to fill these jobs.
However, leaders in the industry say misperceptions among young people are keeping them out of these fields. When young people hear the word "manufacturing," they envision manual labor and assembly lines, rather than the high-tech, innovative careers that the field offers. They also are seemingly unaware of the financial advantage to working in manufacturing: According to NAM (National Association of Manufacturing) Compensation for manufacturing jobs averages 20% higher than the average American's pay.
Manufacturing careers focus on problem-solving, using math, science and the most tech-savvy tools available. Professionals also can choose to work in an array of industries: communications, computers, construction, energy, environment, machine-building, medicine, transportation, agriculture, and many others.
Another misconception deterring the next generation is that many manufacturing companies are outsourcing jobs overseas, and that a career in manufacturing could lead to layoff. In reality, the jobs most often outsourced are lower-skilled positions. To continue to flourish, America's manufactures want and need the world's best and brightest young people.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by the year 2010, America will face a skilled-worker shortage of 8 million, increasing to approximately 14 million by 2020.
How can the U.S. replenish the pipeline, maintain our manufacturing strength and protect our economy?
The answer is early education. We must reach students in lower grades to spark their interest in basic math and science. Those skills then become the building blocks of more advanced courses in high school and beyond.
One way that youth are being attracted to this industry is through specialized workforce programs like those supported by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) Education Foundation. The SME Education Foundation's mission is to support the advancement of manufacturing education and of manufacturing as a career choice, through scholarships, youth programs and grants.
Through partnerships with organizations like Project Lead the Way (PLTW) and generous support from a multitude of corporate sponsors, the SME Education Foundation offered 62 Science, Technology, Engineering Preview Summer (STEPS) Academies in 2007. These week-long programs give students a glimpse into various manufacturing and technology careers through hands-on projects.
By engaging youth early and combating the misconceptions about manufacturing careers, America can continue to move forward as a manufacturing leader. The next generation will be able to rely on their math and science education, as well as cutting-edge technology, to come up with the next big idea.
Sherril K. West is a Board member of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) Education Foundation. http://www.sme.org/