Summit ’18: Talent Is Indispensable for Manufacturing Competitiveness

How can we develop a world-leading engineering and production workforce?

Through more than a thousand hours of discussions and deliberations among manufacturing experts, business leaders, and government decision-makers over the course of MForesight’s Manufacturing Prosperity project, a core theme emerged:

America needs investment in both production and innovation capacities.

To rebuild America’s “industrial commons” — our manufacturing infrastructure, know-how, and capacities — we need new focus on the human element of the manufacturing economy. Talent is an essential precondition for American competitiveness.

Because of the lack of awareness of manufacturing careers — as well as a lack of serious strategic thinking and investment on workforce issues — the nation faces a serious talent shortage. In addition to a dearth of individuals interested in entering skilled trades and traditional manufacturing careers, the nation is also heavily dependent on foreign nationals in many of the scientific and engineering fields that underlie success in advanced manufacturing. In 2015, for example, foreign students received 56 percent of U.S. engineering doctorates, 53 percent in mathematics and computer science, and 44 percent in physics. While the United States is fortunate to attract large numbers of foreign students, the nation cannot continue to depend on them if they continue returning home after graduation.

As with all long-term issues for American manufacturing, both innovation and practice matter. We need top talent for both hands-on production and leading-edge innovation.

MForesight’s new Manufacturing Prosperity report identifies a range of cost-effective strategies for strengthening America’s engineering and technical talent. Speakers at the 2018 MForesight National Summit likewise highlighted a range of proven and prospective initiatives to empower and enhance the nation’s talent.

Throughout both the Summit and the Manufacturing Prosperity roundtables, experts underscored the critical need for new programs to build interest in manufacturing careers. In many parts of the country, there’s still an unjustified stigma surrounding work on a shop floor. Guidance counselors, TV shows, and other formative factors often reinforce the false notion that respectable careers have to be based in offices rather than production facilities. Any effective workforce training strategy has to first counter these misconceptions by demonstrating the powerful possibilities inherent manufacturing careers.

There’s consensus: we need to start early, building interest among younger students across the country. Similarly, we need smart strategies to encourage development of domestic talent in leading edge fields in engineering — starting with K-12 education.
Dean Kamen
Inventor and Entrepreneur Dean Kamen spoke to the Summit about a proven best practice for generating early interest and aptitude in advanced manufacturing: FIRST Robotics. The program replicates the camaraderie and excitement that comes with sports competition — bringing it instead into robotics design and construction. It’s an example of a creative, effective, relatively low-cost solution to the long-term challenge of strengthening our manufacturing workforce.
Also at the 2018 Summit, Blake Moret, CEO of Rockwell Automation, described his company’s new initiative, the Academy for Advanced Manufacturing (AAM), that provides more than 1,000 veterans with skills needed to succeed in advanced manufacturing. The AAM is a vital example of the kind of program could help to meet the near-term needs of manufacturers.
Blake Moret

On the level of public policy, the Manufacturing Prosperity report presented actionable ideas to advance a bipartisan approach to building America’s future industrial workforce: Apprenticeships. One useful step would be to create a national registry of apprenticeships and similar industrial training programs with the aim of matching available programs with high school and college students and veterans seeking opportunities. Excellent candidates and powerful training programs exist — but the challenge often lies in making the right connections.

Beyond this matching initiative, experts identified the need for a focus on training engineering technicians. A frequent complaint among manufacturers today is that engineering graduates lack practical skills to make immediate contributions to factory operations. Mobilizing institutions of higher education to empower more engineering technicians would meet a growing need — and likely attract more students and veterans to applied engineering. Trade schools and engineering colleges could collaborate to offer three-year polytechnic degrees, with scholarships available to students pursuing work in high-need areas.

Throughout the Manufacturing Prosperity process, experts also emphasized the need for a strong pipeline of technical talent to serve the nation’s small and medium sized manufacturers. To cope with major waves of retirements and a shortage of young people with skills well-matched to current needs, many smaller firms are launching partnerships with local technical schools to create custom training programs, often with employment guaranteed to successful graduates. In line with the general theme of building awareness of manufacturing careers, experts emphasized that these excellent programs need to do more to advertise opportunities.

The report also emphasizes the importance of new industry fellowships to fund recent engineering and management retirees to work with the next generation of manufacturing start-ups and business incubators, as well as small- and medium-sized firms. Recent retirees are a vital but underused resource. Foreign countries are recognizing their value and increasingly luring retirees overseas to coach manufacturing firms. It’s time we start valuing our legacy talent and expertise.

Looking to the research and innovation side of the talent equation, experts suggested steps to increase the supply of domestic graduate students. One clear path would be to significantly increase the availability of graduate fellowships for qualified domestic engineering students. This simple, cost-effective step would help to limit inadvertent transfer of R&D results offshore, rebuild the supply of researchers available to domestic industry, and, crucially, increase the number of highly trained scientists and engineers who can work toward the advancement of national interests — including defense. At the Summit, Eric Chewning, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manufacturing and Industrial Base Policy, emphasized that talent is essential not only to economic competitiveness but also national security.

The nation faces serious challenges when it comes to training the future manufacturing workforce. Yet we also have an extraordinary opportunity: to learn from a diverse range of successful education and training initiatives. In recent years, MForesight has done important work to catalogue and amplify what works with respect to education and skill-building. While research facilities, start-up capital, and production infrastructure are all hugely important to manufacturing success, there’s no doubt: Human talent matters most.