November/December 2010

Sustainable manufacturing workforce development

By Blake Moret

A smart, safe, and sustainable manufacturing sector relies on the knowledge, skills, and innovation of its workforce. A cohesive workforce development plan is essential to an effective U.S. industrial strategy for competitiveness that will advance the economic recovery and strengthen our nation.

Three components are vital to successful workforce training as part of a new industrial strategy:

  • Attract students early, feed their interest in manufacturing, and benefit their professional careers.
  • Take a broad view of manufacturing workforce development, accommodating diverse learning styles.
  • Encourage close cooperation between industry and academia.

Lifelong learning

The best trained workers are provided continuous learning opportunities throughout their adult lives. Because of advancing technologies, evolving company processes, and increasing knowledge requirements for factory jobs today, modern manufacturers often place a premium on mature, reliable, longer-term employees, and favor a more highly-trained and educated labor force. But the opportunity to cultivate people talented in the science of making things starts early. With Lego MINDSTORMS, young people create systems that contain most elements of an automated production line.  In high school, FIRST inspires student interests in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by building and competing with a robot of their own design. Programs such as the Race-To-The-Top federal grant initiative should be used to strengthen STEM education as part of required school curriculum.

As students progress from high school to post-secondary education, multiple pathways can contribute to successful jobs at companies that build products. Four-year universities have a critical role in preparing a competitive manufacturing workforce, and community colleges play an increasingly important role, aligning their curricula to the skills that manufacturers need. Postsecondary credentials matter in the manufacturing workforce, and we have to create a system that encourages enrollment in college, takes full advantage of technology-driven instruction, and provides more "on and off" ramps to higher education.

Manufacturers must incorporate the need for lifelong learning into their business plan, right down to utilization targets for direct labor and provision for initial on-the-job education for new hires. The 2005 Skills Gap Report of The Manufacturing Institute, in partnership with Deloitte Consulting, calls for employers to invest at least 3% of payroll to provide training.

Competency-based instruction

Training a workforce for the smart factories of the future is difficult, and most businesses express concern about the ability of their people to meet these demands, especially as many experienced workers are reaching retirement age. The NAM-endorsed Manufacturing Skills Certification System provides a framework of stackable, industry-recognized credentials to describe the breadth of skills necessary to succeed in entry-level jobs in today's manufacturing workplace and to create a competency-based education system. The first release of this Skills Certification System focuses on core or foundational skills necessary in any production environment. The Manufacturing Institute is now building the next tier of higher-level skills credentials. Integrating nationally portable, industry-recognized skills credentials into high school and college programs of study is a striking new approach to workforce development.

Systems that aim to standardize performance expectations must also include a variety of training delivery techniques to maximize effectiveness. As Mercedes Fisher, Ph.D., associate dean of Academic Services, Milwaukee Area Technical College said, "The workforce needs to be problem-solvers, creative thinkers, and self-directed learners to be successful. Techniques such as: cooperative learning, simulations, instructional and tool software, field experiences, demonstrations, guest speakers, videos of real-life manufacturing situations, hands-on projects, and class discussions can provide workers with opportunities to reflect on practical experiences and apply the theories being studied in ways that change their perspective on the workplace and productivity."

Partnerships

Broader and more sustainable links must be forged between educational institutions and businesses to ensure the alignment between a wide variety of sources of learning. Industry and educators need more formal and frequent communications to refine curricula to meet current and emerging needs. Dr. Bill Wepfer, chair of the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, emphasizes that current technology must be taught. "We need to continue to provide strong underpinning engineering principles while also providing students with the opportunity to connect with the physical world and current technology. This is why many universities are strengthening their high-value-add 'design-build' activities in the design spines of the curriculum."

America enjoys a proud tradition of world leadership in the process of doing things better over time. Fueled by bright ideas and a strong value placed on education, productivity gains in agriculture and manufacturing have helped create a very high, durable standard of living. To rise to the challenge of a global manufacturing marketplace driven by productivity and flexibility, and the need to develop workers able to lead in such an environment, our industrial strategy must address these key attributes of workforce development.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Blake Moret is vice president and general manager of the Customer Support and Maintenance (CSM) business for Rockwell Automation. In this role, he leads the global CSM business, which provides the expertise and resources customers need to optimize the performance of their automation investments.