Preparing tomorrow’s IIoT workforce requires a symbiotic relationship between education and industry
By Thomas Lichtenberger
The U.S. manufacturing industry is facing a hiring crisis. Today’s workforce is not prepared for the industry of the future, making it harder to meet customer demand, take advantage of new technology, and increase productivity.
The effects of this gap or mismatch spread throughout the entire workforce supply chain. Employers must grapple with the challenge of finding the talent they need, and educators struggle to keep pace with the rise of Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). But despite the urgency, both sides continue to come up short in making significant progress to narrow the gap—in part because we are not working in concert.
Worse yet, the lack of qualified employees entering the advanced manufacturing industry is a problem that will only continue to grow. In the next 10 years, 3.4 million advanced manufacturing jobs will need to be filled. But the skills gap could result in 2 million of those jobs remaining vacant, according to a 2015 report from the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte.
With this projected shortage, it is obvious from the industrial vantage point that the manufacturing industry is not “killing jobs” as many people assume. We in the industry understand that the nature of manufacturing has evolved, and therefore so have the required skill sets. Antiquated manufacturing jobs have died off; however, they are being replaced with careers in advanced manufacturing, which offer competitive salaries and exist in cleaner, safer environments. As machines increasingly perform the rote responsibilities workers once had on assembly lines, smart factories need workers who have high-tech and design engineering training, as well as polished critical-thinking skills to complete complex tasks.
Although IIoT is making way for new breakthroughs in technology and automation, getting entry-level employees up to speed is a challenge. Again, the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte offer some insight. In a survey of employers, it was noted that the manufacturing workforce is most deficient in technology and computer skills, technical training, problem solving, and math skills, leaving much to be desired from K–12 classrooms, higher education, and technical training programs.
This is not to say the education system is the sole entity at fault when it comes to the skills gap and career readiness. What many industry experts fail to realize is the invaluable role they can—and should—play in education. The relationship between educators and industry leaders should be symbiotic—each must benefit the other to prepare the workforce of the future and bring balance to the manufacturing ecosystem. So, if employers want a workforce that can meet their needs, they need to roll up their sleeves and put in some work, too.
How can employers get involved?
While educators are experts in teaching, employers bring industry knowledge to the table. By partnering with schools and technical training programs, members of industry ensure that students stay current about IIoT developments, while educators focus on making the learning experience engaging and meaningful.
That involvement can happen earlier than most industry individuals realize. Giving children and teenagers in K–12 classrooms earlier exposure to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning activities can deeply engage them in the subjects for the long term. Industry leaders may be able to supplement hands-on or project-based learning with real equipment or lifelike models that resemble the factories of the future, opening students’ minds to the possibilities of STEM careers.
Further down the path, in postsecondary education, instructors need a direct line to what is happening in the industry now, as well as the forecast for the future, so they can prepare students for specific careers after graduation. This presents a major opportunity for employers to build partnerships with educators to make sure the education system is an effective step in training tomorrow’s workforce.
Other opportunities include sitting on the curriculum advisory board of local K–12 schools or colleges or creating apprenticeship programs for high school and postsecondary students, so they can receive hands-on training. Employers can also explore involvement in summer programs and competitions that get students excited about STEM. Each of these efforts lets manufacturing professionals provide guidance and resources to the students who will become the workers of tomorrow.
More importantly, the underpinnings of all these activities is symbiosis. If industry leaders help prepare educators to address the content areas students need to be successful, they can deliver a workforce that is ready to embrace the innovations of the future