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A New Approach to Filling High-Level Manufacturing Jobs

Feb. 25, 2020
Integrating certification into a bachelor's degree can bring students to these careers earlier—and help fill the skills gap.

American factories are about twice as efficient today as they were three decades ago. Cutting-edge “Industry 4.0 technologies” such as artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, data analytics, and the Internet of Things have bolstered productivity. They’ve also automated many low-skill factory jobs and created new, high-skill jobs requiring workers with more advanced levels of education.

This evolution has led to a growing gap between the manufacturing jobs that need to be filled and the skilled talent pool capable of filling them, as illustrated by a recent study from Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, which showed that high-skill digital talent, skilled production worker, and operational manager positions may be especially difficult to fill.

How do we build education pathways that can address this skills gap? Here’s one possible solution: Let’s embed high-quality, industry-recognized certifications into college degree programs.

There are many benefits to a broad-based education afforded by a college degree. The return on investment of a college education is strong, and especially for STEM degrees in engineering and manufacturing. But given the rapid rate of technological change, it’s difficult for any single degree, bootcamp, or training seminar to continuously keep up with the iterations of technology over time.

That’s where certifications come into play. Certifications (not to be confused with a license, degree, or a certificate) are awarded by only if students pass a competency-based assessment delivered by an independent third-party organization (usually an industry association  and/or an association of certified professionals).

Certification bodies use sophisticated job-task analyses to create test blueprints that measure competencies needed by employers. Unlike most credentials, certifications are time-limited and require a re-certification after a number of years, so continuing education is built into the credential. Certification holders must continuously update their knowledge in order to pass re-certification exams, which are mandatory. These re-certification exams ensure that certified learners are up-to-date on the critical competencies in their field.

Relevant certification bodies in manufacturing include APICS, the Association of Technology, Management, and Applied Engineering, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, International Association for Six Sigma Certification, and the American Society for Quality—all of which offer certifications that help workers keep their skills fresh ahead of the curve.

By combining a four-year degree with certification, students benefit from the broad-based education and soft skills afforded by a college degree and the specific competencies employers need workers to have to excel on a high-tech shop floor and beyond.

An especially appealing attribute of certification-degree pathways is that they don’t necessarily have to extend a learner’s time in college. If degree curriculum is aligned with the competencies measured by a certification exam (and by extension, industry), all the learner needs to do is sit for the certification exam upon graduating from college.

This unique combination can also help address another big challenge in manufacturing talent development—building interest and awareness of manufacturing careers.

By coupling a manufacturing-specific certification with a college engineering degree, students are exposed to career paths in manufacturing much earlier in their education. Once students know that a university is encouraging a particular degree-certification pathway, they start thinking about what a manufacturing career would look like (What exactly is manufacturing? What are the job prospects? What does one need to do to be competitive for a good manufacturing job?)

By introducing the certification pathway at the outset of their career, they’re more likely to consider internship, undergraduate research experience, or other work-and-learn opportunities that would generate more interest and familiarity with manufacturing careers.

Creating degree-certification pathways like these is easier said than done, but there’s a movement behind this work backed by a coalition of the willing. With support from the Lumina Foundation, Workcred, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities, and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association are working on a national initiative to better understand how employers and universities can collaborate to build these pathways. Dozens of universities and certification bodies across the nation have been a part of the project.

Most recently, we convened a national workshop at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta to explore how best to embed certifications into four-year degree programs in the context of the manufacturing industry. The workshop revealed some challenges, such as how to pay for the certification exams, how to identify which certifications are high-quality, and how universities can become more agile in aligning curricula with certification requirements. We also identified some real-world examples of degree-certifications that work.

For example, in Ohio University's Bachelor of Science in Engineering Technology and Management degree program, students sit for the exam to become a Certified Manufacturing Specialist (CMS). The CMS certification exam is incorporated into the program's capstone class, and all seniors in the program are required to take the exam. Students boast a 90% pass rate, significantly higher than the national pass rate of 56%.

Similarly, Siemens partners with Middle Tennessee State University to graduate students with bachelor’s degrees in mechatronics and Siemens Level 3 certifications. Mechatronics is a highly complex discipline bringing together knowledge and skills from mechanics, electronics, and IT.  By combining two credentials into a single program, students majoring in mechatronics at Middle Tennessee State University gain the hands-on skills they need to be work-ready for manufacturing careers immediately after graduation.

In emerging manufacturing sectors such as the integrated photonics industry, the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics (AIM Photonics), a federal Manufacturing USA Institute devoted to applications for light energy, is looking to get ahead of the curve by partnering with universities and companies to create a certification in photonics and integrated photonics.

AIM Photonics already has several partnerships with higher-education institutions. The AIM Photonics Academy “provides opportunities for students to work with state-of-the-art hands-on and online tools to move into careers in the fast-emerging field of integrated photonics,” said Julie Diop, who works on AIM Photonics Academy’s technician-training initiatives as part of her role as program manager at MIT.

While there’s no silver bullet to solve the manufacturing talent challenge, degree-certification pathways are proving themselves to be an important investment for manufacturers, workers, and education providers alike. As industry seeks to prepare for the Future of Work and universities aim to strengthen career outcomes of graduates, these pathways could very well set up American manufacturing for long-term competitiveness.

Shalin R. Jyotishi is assistant director for economic development and community engagement at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, North America’s oldest presidents-led higher education association, where he advances research and projects that help universities foster a 21st century workforce, catalyze innovation ecosystems, and promote prosperous communities.

Isabel Cardenas-Navia, PhD, is director of research at Workcred, an affiliate of the American Standards Institute. Through research, consulting, education and training, and stakeholder collaboratives, Workcred is dedicated to increasing the quality, market value, and effectiveness of credentials. 

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