Do workforce shortages result from politics? Mark Tomlinson, chief executive officer and general manager of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, indicates that that’s a narrow-minded view that can only lead to short-sighted solutions. The real issues are substantive, and require long-range foresight. Education will be the key.

In June 2011, the White House announced a major expansion of the Skills for America’s Future program. This will include use of industry-created certifications and mentorships focused on building the educated and skilled workforce that US manufacturers need to successfully compete in the 21st century economy.
The announcement raised question? Was it merely the start of someone’s re-election campaign, or did it indicate a substantial problem for the United States?

The problem is real, believes the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) – and White House recognition began the process of reestablishing the need (and value) of “making things.”

As the economy recovers, and manufacturing is gaining momentum and strength, the biggest issue manufacturers face—and will face for years—is finding skilled and educated workers. Even though the unemployment rate remains around nine percent, many companies already struggle to find qualified employees. The nation’s sustained manufacturing will depend, in large part, on its ability to train the most productive manufacturing workers. There’s an urgency related to that effort: the Baby Boom effect. Currently, 2.7 million manufacturing employees are 55 years of age or older and likely to leave the labor force in the next 10 years. That points to a problem of significant magnitude, one that requires a collaborative effort involving industry, government and educators.

In recent years, the manufacturing sector has confronted serious challenges, but it remains the US economy’s lifeblood. Currently, manufacturing employs more than 11 million Americans. Manufacturing is also critical for continued innovation, as manufacturers account for two-thirds of private sector research and development and roughly 90 percent of all registered patents. Most importantly, manufacturing has long provided good-paying jobs for millions of families and serves as the anchor employer in communities across North America.

Such messages SME has regularly promoted. As such, it has focused on workforce development, always committed to support the manufacturing enterprise through several initiatives, including credentialing, mentoring, and workforce training. Let’s look at each element.

Credentialing: Fostering a Vibrant Workforce
SME is one of the five founding partners of The Manufacturing Institute’s National Association of Manufacturer-endorsed Manufacturing Skills Certification System. SME’s industry certifications help validate the knowledge and expertise of manufacturing professionals across the world. Further, SME supports implementation of the system through the educational and career pathways currently available, and it builds new pathways for the future workforce. Providing workers with widely accepted, industry-recognized credentials will improve earning potential and increase job security.

Mentoring: Creating the Next Generation Workforce
SME and the SME Education Foundation partner with the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, as well as the National Academy Foundation, and General Dynamics-Ordnance and Tactical Systems. In this way, it provides mentorships and continues its long tradition of mentoring high school and college students, teachers, counselors and administrators about requirements for careers in the 21st century plant, which are high-tech environments populated by highly skilled employees.

Workforce Training: Blended Learning Approach
As the needs of the future manufacturing workforce develop, and as the existing workforce members enhance their skills to support the ever-changing environment, training must become very agile and “real time.” SME’s approaches this problem by using industry-supported certifications and an associated body of knowledge. This knowledge provides the backbone for:

  • On-line learning through Tooling U, an SME company with more than 400 technical courses
  • Face-to-face training using industry-seasoned instructors who understand the needs of a productive manufacturing workforce and relevant technical training required
  • Online and in-person networking – The workforce must understand that the state of manufacturing constantly changes and that they must stay current through participation in webinars and industry relevant events, such as SME’s annual conference and usage of the NIST-MEP network created to support small- to medium-size manufacturing and its workforce development needs

These are just some of the programs that SME and its partners deploy. Remember, manufacturing is much more than repetitive assembly; it involves an entire process, from creating the idea to delivering the finished goods.

To solve existing problems, we need support from industry as well as all levels of education and government. This means solid support, not just political rhetoric. The future of our economy is at stake. We in manufacturing have proven time after time that the only way to support the thriving economy is by making things. This goes beyond the political. We all need to collaborate on solving our workforce issues.

The journey will be long, but SME believes that the White House announcement, though overdue, indicates a start.

The manufacturing industry, its educators and a qualified workforce will prove that a stable economy starts with a strong manufacturing sector.

As SME’s executive director and CEO, author Mark C. Tomlinson, CMfgE, EMCP, heads an organization that represents the leading source for manufacturing knowledge, education and networking. SME collaborates with industry, academia and government partners to support a skilled workforce, for now and for the future.