Earlier this month, industry thought leaders, economic experts, and politicians took part in a daylong series of interview sessions called Manufacturing’s Next Chapter, hosted by The Atlantic in Washington D.C., where they gave their viewpoints on a number of issues impacting the U.S. manufacturing workforce — ranging from immigration to education. Here are some highlights.
High-skilled, educated employees are a vital asset to company growth, since they help drive innovation and ultimately competitiveness. More than ever before, U.S. manufacturers are looking for a multifaceted workforce. But they face a dire situation as workers age, and new advanced technologies require deeper expertise. There are not enough skilled, educated people to fill many available high-paying jobs amid the American manufacturing recovery of the past couple of years.
The following is a recap of what industry leaders had to say about the nation’s workforce challenges and what needs to change to drive American competitiveness in manufacturing.
STEM and Immigration
Senator Michael Bennett of Colorado spoke to Steve Clemons, editor at large for The Atlantic, about the vital need now for more talent in the U.S. workforce.
“…As a former superintendent of schools, I can tell you that my first priority is that we’ve got to fill those jobs here, and we are doing a horrendous job of preparing people for the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields that are required to make sure that this country actually leads the world in advanced manufacturing,” Bennett said, noting that children need to be better prepared for the 21st century.
The senator continued: “Having said that, while we do that, it seems to me that it makes no sense for us to be saying to people that have acquired advanced degree(s) and are foreign nationals, but whose education we subsidize … that they ought to go back to their country and build a business to compete with people here in the United States. We need those folks to be able to drive the innovation here.”
During a discussion with Clemons, Senator John McCain expressed a similar sentiment.
Said McCain, “I think 25,000 Chinese students are in this country taking higher scientific programs … if that person wants to stay and work in the United States of America and there’s a crying need for people with those kind of skills and education, let’s let them stay. We could do it on a temporary basis or work out the details of how they could do that.”
The Arizona senator acknowledged political challenges lie ahead regarding immigration, emphasizing that the issue of guest workers has yet to be resolved and that while high-tech workers are a valuable resource to the nation, low-skilled and undocumented workers are a thorn for politicians and unions.
The Reality of Globalization
Jeffrey Immelt, chief executive of GE, added perspective directly from industry — and a dose of manufacturing globalization reality — when commenting on the state of his business. Because GE requires employees to work with sophisticated machinery and parts, he noted going outside the American pipeline to accomplish company goals.
Immelt remarked: “We will create jobs here. We will also create jobs in China, we will also create jobs in a lot of different places. We are a global company. I’m never going to apologize for that.”
Despite that, an American manufacturing advantage remains competitive, according to Immelt, because of its proximity to market and generally higher-skilled workforce. American companies also have the ability to innovate quickly when outfitted with the right type of workers.
The Manufacturing Stigma
Students are not entering manufacturing programs as steadily as with others despite reported high compensation. Part of the problem is a misconception about manufacturing jobs, according to one session on education. Another major issue: the hype around four-year degrees in other fields, which typically leave graduates with high debt.
“Manufacturing jobs are seen as low status compared to those that require a four-year degree. That’s despite the fact that college is getting more expensive, while its [return on investment] becomes more uncertain,” Business Insider noted on the issue.
Education and training need to be improved in order to prepare students for multifaceted careers in manufacturing, especially as jobs require more skills. In particular, Immelt noted that to have a job in additive manufacturing, workers will need to know a mix of computer skills, artisan skills, and welding. “You’re going to package them in one activity,” he remarked.