Even at a time when the unemployment rate in the U.S. has been stuck at around 8 percent for more than 40 months in a row, U.S. manufacturing has had difficulty recruiting qualified candidates to be engineers, machinists, welders, and machine service and repair technicians. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports there are about 300,000-plus unfilled positions in manufacturing at this time.
We can improve three key things to help alleviate this shortage, and two of those things are easier issues to solve: 1) improve STEM education in schools, 2) highlight the importance of a degree as well as industry-backed credentials, and 3) communicate to parents, students, and educators that U.S. manufacturing is a terrific career choice.
The more difficult issue to solve is in our current education system and our ability to teach math and science to youngsters in a way that resonates with them. We have to teach not from textbooks and not to standardized tests but rather real-world examples of math and science problems that help students really understand the use of these subjects in their everyday lives. Our current education system is designed to teach some STEM to all students at a time when industry is saying that we should be teaching all STEM to some. They are the students who actually "get it" not through rote memorization but because they are able to do the critical thinking and problem-solving in math and science.
As we begin to repair that one big thing, which unfortunately will take time, we can still focus on the two things that are easier to fix. One is the importance of credentials, certifications, and degrees, and the other is that many people are unaware of the overwhelming advantage that U.S. manufacturing has over all other industries combined in opportunity, compensation, and benefits.
In speaking with engineering schools, they say enrollment is finally beginning to head in the right direction again. The baby boomer generation of engineers is still retiring faster than we can keep up, and we need to communicate to young people who have the acumen for engineering that they have a future in our industry. BLS projects the growth rate in STEM-related jobs at 17.9 percent in this decade versus 9.8 percent for all other industries.
Beyond engineers, we need workers who can think critically and are good at math and with their hands, and we need to encourage young people to attend outstanding advanced manufacturing technology programs at community or technical colleges in their areas. Today, only 50 percent of students who enter four-year colleges take six years to graduate, and students have an average of more than $26,000 in student loan debt whether they graduate or not.
We have to get real about where young people seek their post-secondary education and begin to encourage them to enter STEM programs at community colleges before making large investments in student loans for a college education. Most community college programs are so affordable and allow for flexible time schedules that many students can work part time or even full time while they go to school and pay for school on a pay-as-you-go basis.
Even if students decide to go on to attain four-year engineering degrees, 79 percent of STEM students will graduate after four years versus the 50 percent of all students after six years, and they will have far less student loan debt as a result of having begun their college education at community colleges.
The Association for Manufacturing Technology works with The National Coalition of Advanced Technology Centers (NCATC), a group of nearly 200 community colleges with a nationwide network of manufacturing centers, and encourages parents and students to investigate the terrific advanced manufacturing technology programs at these schools.
At an NCATC member school, students can participate in an internship program, earn associate's degrees, and also earn the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) credentials, if applicable. The NIMS credentials for machinists and machine repair technicians demonstrate to companies that individuals have went through education or training programs at NIMS-accredited schools and have passed a nationally accredited exam to earn their credentials.
Finally, according to BLS, STEM workers are far less likely to experience joblessness over their careers than other workers, and they earn on average of 27 percent more in annual compensation and benefits than non-STEM workers (just over $77,000 versus just over $56,000). If we can communicate that math to parents, students, educators, and administrators, they will see that careers in U.S. manufacturing aren't just viable but also make good sense.
Greg Jones is vice president of Smartforce development at AMT - The Association For Manufacturing Technology. Based in McLean, Va., AMT represents and promotes U.S.-based manufacturing technology and its members - those who design, build, sell, and service the continuously evolving technology that lies at the heart of manufacturing. For more, visit AMT's website at www.amtonline.org.