America’s poor performance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education is seen as one of the major causes of the shortage of skilled manufacturing workers. As Manufacturing Day – an image and awareness campaign – approaches on Oct. 5, can manufacturers and their partners in academia and government succeed in refocusing students on STEM and fix the skilled labor gap?
Although the United States has seen 30 consecutive months of job growth, unemployment has remained above 8 percent for 43 months. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs remain unfilled. There are numerous theories attempting to account for this poor performance in the labor market, but one consistent factor employers and market specialists cite is the skills gap caused by a lack of targeted education among the labor pool.
According to a September 2011 survey of manufacturers, conducted by the Manufacturing Institute, 67 percent of respondents reported a moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers and 56 percent expected the problem to get worse in the next three to five years. Of those, 5 percent said their available jobs go unfilled because of a lack of appropriately skilled workers.
Studies have traced the lack of skilled workers to America’s poor performance in STEM education. STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, is noted as a fundamental requirement for many high-tech manufacturing jobs in the country, yet “only 32 percent of U.S. and private school students in the class of 2011 are deemed proficient in mathematics,” according to a speech Rick Stephens, senior vice president of human resources and administration at Boeing, delivered last summer.
A 2010 PISA study showed American students scored 23rd in math and 31st in science when compared with 65 other top industrial countries, ranking lower than Lichtenstein, Slovakia, Estonia and Hungary.
The Science and Engineering Indicators of 2012, assembled by the National Science Board, showed improvements, but the gains do not suggest a complete turnaround. This data is especially worrisome considering the improvements American education will need to make. As Gray Construction notes, “around 1 million more professionals will be needed to fill STEM jobs over the next decade. To meet this demand, the U.S. will need to increase STEM-degreed graduates by some 34 percent — an unlikely feat given the U.S. is graduating fewer and fewer STEM professionals each year.”
The “U.S. needs a manufacturing agenda,” Jerry Jasinowski, former president of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the Manufacturing Institute, wrote at U.S. News and World Report. “Talent is complementary to technology, but the kids coming out of our public schools are pathetically unqualified to work in modern manufacturing. The Germans and Japanese in particular have excellent programs for training bright young people to work with advanced manufacturing technologies. We have enough lawyers. We need more people who know how to make things.”
How can the country’s lawmakers, educators and manufacturers create this agenda?
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have endorsed initiatives to combat the problem. Among other efforts, President Bush signed into law the America COMPETES Act of 2007, which allocated more funding to science and technology education; in his 2013 budget, President Obama requested continued funding for the Effective Teaching and Learning: STEM program, the new name for the Mathematics and Science Partnership (MSP).
Other government efforts have not been so successful. The STEM Jobs bill, which attempted to attract foreign science workers, was rejected by the House of Representatives in late September.
Considering the mixed record of success from government-sponsored STEM education initiatives, many experts encourage manufacturers to become active in addressing the issue themselves.
Amy Kaslow, senior fellow of the Council on Competitiveness, outlined eight steps to close the skills gap in Manufacturing Exective. Her advice is no quick fix; rather, she enumerates a comprehensive, diverse path manufacturers must tread to successfully cross the gulf. One step is simply communicating the consequences of the skills gap. As manufacturing increases as a percentage of American GDP, so too does its role in guiding the country out of the recession. Properly articulating the threat of the skills gap to American workers today and tomorrow will make the industry more appealing to a wider number of job seekers.
“Once manufacturers become authorities on this narrative, they will position themselves as a compelling career choice,” Kaslow argues.
Part of commanding this narrative involves rebranding manufacturing in the public mind. Citing Manufacturing Institute survey figures, Kaslow notes that “only 20 percent of American adults would advise their children to pursue manufacturing careers. Their bias is strong, their views distorted by old pictures of factory workers on the assembly line performing mind-numbing tasks.” Changing this bias can be solved by direct outreach, such as opening a factory to the public.
Additionally, manufacturers can strengthen their alliances with education partners and demand results. Kaslow suggests firms should ensure their education partners:
- Perform effective entry assessments of students to determine the most realistic and effective career pathways;
- Expedite student connections to the job market with relevant coursework, certifications and just-in-time training offered in the classroom, offsite and online;
- Offer accredited programs that capture and cultivate student interest in STEM/manufacturing, and award post-secondary credits to high school students who work with mentors to learn entry-level trade skills;
- Enter into strategic partnerships with national and/or local industry that lead to well-informed curricula that reflect job market demands and offer access to an array of in-kind support, including teacher training, industry professionals and tradesmen/women as teacher and student mentors, simulators, facilities, work-study programs and internships; and
- Track and report metrics that show the correlations between field of study/mentoring/job placement/employability of graduates.
At IMTS in September, SME also revealed its six-point program to reverse the skilled workforce shortage and improve STEM education. The action plan advises stakeholders to focus on:
- Attracting more students into manufacturing;
- Articulating a standard core of manufacturing knowledge;
- Improving the consistency and quality of manufacturing education;
- Integrating manufacturing topics into STEM education;
- Developing faculty that deliver world-class manufacturing education; and
- Strategically deploying resources to accomplish these goals.
Co-produced by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, Intl. (FMA); the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP); National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST); the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM); and the Manufacturing Institute, Manufacturing Day is a nationwide effort to encourage manufacturers to open their facilities to the public. Firms across the country will host educational sessions and factory tours for students, veterans, local government officials and other members of the local community.
“Manufacturing Day will be the ‘coming out party’ for U.S. manufacturers all across the nation,” Ed Youdell, president and CEO of the FMA, said in a statement. “Oct. 5 is dedicated to celebrating the great work and innovation of the 12 million men and women who make the United States the world’s largest manufacturing economy. FMA and MEP centers are encouraging their members and manufacturers to open their doors to their local school kids, community college students, press, and job seekers so that they can see firsthand the safe, high-tech and innovative work environments that await the best and brightest who pursue careers in manufacturing.”
Manufacturing Day is just one effort to “control the narrative” of manufacturing and alleviate the threat posed by the skills gap. Increasing interest in STEM education will take a lot of effort and initiative on the part of the manufacturing community as a whole. What will your role be?