I hear far too often that “manufacturing is the alternative to college.” It’s a false choice.
Maybe you don’t need an undergraduate degree for most entry-level factory jobs, but just like in other industries, manufacturing workers with college degrees get faster raises and more promotions; they gain more transferable skills and credentials that help if they lose one job to find another.
There’s a reason more than 55% of manufacturers help their workers pay for part-time college: they want college-educated people. They need the best and brightest to run the technology that’s increasingly commonplace on every shop floor (collaborative robots, automation, etc.). But those people are incredibly hard to find, and the result is there are tens of thousands of American manufacturers who can’t find enough skilled workers – even though they provide steady jobs with good benefits, career mobility and above-average wages.
So we should embrace the idea that college prepares students for manufacturing – and the best way to do that is through the community college system.
President Joe Biden’s plan to make community college free for all Americans could have a massive impact on manufacturing employment – if it’s deployed properly. Here are five ways that funding community colleges could actually alleviate the labor shortage:
1. Community colleges often have some of the most advanced skilled-trades and manufacturing training programs – CNC, welding, robotics, maintenance. These skills are critically important to manufacturers, but so difficult to find. Successful deployment of free community college would mean encouraging enrollment in programs that benefit good-paying, high-demand jobs in industries including manufacturing, rather than increasing enrollment in liberal arts degrees without proven track records to attractive careers. In fact, I’d argue that free tuition should be linked to those careers that would have the greatest economic impact for their industries and for the country.
2. Including certificates or shorter-than-two-year credentialling programs in the free tuition would open on-ramps for individuals who might not initially be interested in a multi-year program. Manufacturers don’t use credentials extensively in hiring, but that’s largely because not enough people have credentials. And until that changes, a certificate is still a tangible credential that demonstrates experience. We need to normalize certificates, and free tuition could encourage their adoption if it includes pursuing certificates.
3. The collaboration we see most between community colleges and manufacturers are “boot-camp” experiences – short, multi-week engagements that go over the basics of manufacturing and a specialty like welding or basic CNC operation. It is a huge barrier for the underemployed or unemployed to spend any money, even if it is a few thousand dollars, to enroll in classes like these, even if they offer the promise of a job at the end. Ensuring that these workforce programs are free will remove a significant barrier and open them up to a larger pool of applicants.
4. Today, many organizations and resources are focused on training for manufacturing jobs. Paying for college programs would free up many of these organizations to focus on manufacturing recruitment and wraparound services. The difficulty of hiring in manufacturing is created by a series of broken systems and troublesome issues – training is just one of them. If much of training costs are covered, it will free up community funds, federal government funds, and even the energy of many non-profit organizations to focus on other challenges. They could be helping people find good jobs and get their lives in order so they can succeed in the workplace, or even find reliable transportation and childcare.
5. Beyond entry-level workers, engineers are also in short supply. Anything that encourages enrollment in community colleges for technical degrees will put more people on a track to pursue four-year engineering degrees and even better-paying careers.
The key to ensuring that free community college benefits manufacturers will be explicit incentivization of programs that lead to family-sustaining careers. Community colleges must agree to teach the skills manufacturers need, and manufacturers must provide the job opportunities. Our entire talent pipeline system should measure itself not simply on completion, but on placement into good careers or relevant four-year degrees. That is the promise of free tuition: better-prepared people in better careers living better lives.
In America, the value we place on learning can be a competitive advantage, but only if we use education to help Americans succeed in industries that offer economic opportunity and stability. Manufacturing offers exactly that—and it needs more educated people. Funding free community college could support the growth of the manufacturing sector, the health of our economy and the families of millions of American workers.
Ethan Karp is president and CEO of MAGNET, Northeast Ohio’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership.