Our nation’s manufacturing workforce needs to close what’s typically called the “skills gap.” The gap identifies a discrepancy between skills needed in the manufacturing industry and what’s available in the workforce, and it’s a threat to our global competitiveness. In 2013, the issue of the manufacturing skills gap took precedence during President Obama’s State of the Union address. He emphasized the need to revitalize the manufacturing sector and launched a pilot institute of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI). There are a number of contributing factors to the manufacturing skills gap:
- Manufacturing has an image problem. Students commonly think of manufacturing jobs as dirty, dangerous, and unfulfilling. However, times have changed, and technologies are advancing at a staggering rate. Personally, I had an amazing high-tech internship experience working for a manufacturing company that is continuing to develop the innovative James Webb Space Telescope.
- Baby boomers are retiring and taking the talent pool with them. Seasoned workers can have a lifetime of experience learning from mistakes and witnessing the evolution of materials and manufacturing processes. Whether or not companies have consciously prepared for a wave of retiring workers, many employers do not have the time or resources to train the incoming workforce while remaining profitable.
- Manufacturers need specific skills in specific locations. Many employers have said a shortage of talent keeps them from successfully filling open positions. While a large variety of skillsets is available across the country, not all of them are transferable to manufacturers in specific geographic locations.
Are these factors caused by a disconnect between academia and industry? Many schools prepare their outgoing graduates for the working world by encouraging them to pursue internships during their schooling. My university maintained active communication with a network of employers seeking to hire students within their respective disciplines. While this engagement of industry can effectively prepare some students for the working world, it has not solved the problem of the manufacturing skills gap.
Three more Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation (IMI) have been launched since the President’s State of the Union, and the goal has been increased from 15 total IMIs to 45 IMIs over the next 10 years. Education and workforce development are cornerstones of each IMI. They call on nationwide partnerships among industry, schools, universities, and colleges to develop curricula and hands-on training programs to teach relevant skillsets to our nation’s manufacturing workforce at all educational levels.
The manufacturing workforce skills gap must be tackled if we want to maintain global competitiveness. The next 10 years of IMI development represent a new era of preparing our workforce with skillsets that match the needs of manufacturing employers across the country.