Commentary: Focus on Advanced Manufacturing
It’s estimated that 2 million manufacturing positions are expected to go unfulfilled due to a gap in skilled labor. Timothy D. Easley/AP
Every company grapples with the challenge of recruiting talent. But the need is especially dire in advanced manufacturing.
According to a study conducted by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, by 2025, an estimated 3.5 million jobs will be created in the manufacturing industry, but 2 million of those positions are expected to go unfulfilled due to a gap in skilled labor.
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However, manufacturing – advanced manufacturing in particular – remains a key to the country’s economic success in the long run. In addition to its significant contribution to GDP ($2.1 trillion in 2013, amounting to 12.5 percent of total U.S. gross domestic product, according to Economic Policy Institute) and its vital role in providing goods and services for other sectors of our economy, manufacturing also plays a critical part in maintaining the nation’s innovative competitiveness. As a report by McKinsey Global Institute points out, manufacturing makes “outsized contributions to research and development, exports, and productivity growth.”
Advanced manufacturing calls for a highly specialized talent pool, and the responsibility for developing that talent can’t fall to a single sector. It takes an orchestrated effort from local government, educators, organizations outside the school district, industry insiders and community members to spark interest in and prepare kids for a career in the advanced manufacturing field. With this in mind, Fremont partnered with FUSE Corps to plant the “manufacturing seed” at an early age – as early as middle school.
As straightforward as the term seems, there was little agreement as to what advanced manufacturing actually is. Answers ranged from “It’s more advanced than what we used to do” to “It’s what Tesla is doing” to “Biotech, for sure.” The best definition I’ve heard is from Dr. Mark Martin, a manufacturing expert who works with Bay Area community colleges, who said, “Advanced manufacturing is any manufacturing that can be profitable in [any high-cost region such as] the Bay Area.” Humorous as it may sound, this does get at the heart of the issue. In order to be profitable in an expensive, competitive area, any manufacturing business must use advanced technology, advanced materials, advanced processes, and of course, an advanced team of employees to increase profit margins.
A 2011 report prepared by President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology defines advanced manufacturing as activities that involve “new ways to manufacture existing products, and especially the manufacture of new products emerging from new advanced technologies.” This stands especially true in Fremont, the fourth-largest city in the San Francisco Bay Area. Take Lockdowel for example, a local manufacturer of hardware for cabinetry, closets and furniture. Using computer numerical control (CNC) machines, Lockdowel designs and creates new attachment systems that are glue-less and tool-less. If making wood cabinets is traditional manufacturing, I doubt anyone would disagree that what Lockdowel does can be defined as advanced manufacturing.
I visited a lot of manufacturers like Lockdowel, all working to reimagine the production process with advanced technology instead of a mass of human laborers; it’s with this innovative thinking that they gained a foothold in Silicon Valley with one of the highest labor rates in the country. If “traditional manufacturing” conjures the default image of rows of factory workers screwing the screens into smartphones, “advanced manufacturing” requires workers to program, operate and repair sophisticated tools and machinery that actually do the manufacturing.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, skills are the foundation for quickly acquiring specialized knowledge when entering the advanced manufacturing workforce for the first time, but they are not sufficient by themselves. It’s problem-solving – the ability to define a new problem, brainstorm solutions, evaluate the solutions, take action and iterate – that is the key to success in this field.
“I can teach people how to run the machines,” says Brian Paper, chief operating officer at Bay Area Circuits. “I need people who can solve the problems when things go wrong. That’s really hard to find.”
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This isn’t surprising, nor unique to advanced manufacturing. Tony Wagner, in his book “Raising Innovators,” cites “critical thinking and problem-solving” first in a list of the seven core skills for innovators. The Next Generation Science Standards, which were adopted by California in 2013, agree that creative problem-solving skills are an important component of STEM skills. The NGSS Engineering Practices also emphasize “asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering), developing and using models and planning and carrying out investigations.” What’s still missing: a tailored curriculum focused on building the problem-solving skills needed for advanced manufacturing.
But even when recent graduates have solid STEM knowledge and problem-solving skills, they’re not applying to manufacturing jobs or aren’t aware of advanced manufacturers in the Bay Area. The main problem: Neither the graduates nor their parents know there’s a path outside of what I call the “Harvard-Stanford-Doctor-Lawyer” trajectory.
But cooperation and collaboration between the private, public and educational sectors are starting to have a positive effect. Some companies and organizations are already engaging directly with Fremont classrooms: At Irvington High School, Information Technology Coordinator/Instructor Hector Albizo built a cybersecurity sandbox/data center with nodes named New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo to meet the demand for cybersecurity specialists. This project was completed with support from Mission Valley Regional Occupational Center and industry partners. Also at Irvington High School, a leading drone maker is working with Engineering and Computer Science teacher Kristin Berbawy and her juniors and seniors on how to use drone technology to solve challenges for Fremont’s Public Works and Fire departments. These challenges provide a perfect playground for students to learn and practice both STEM skills and creative problem-solving skills – and a model that many other schools can easily use to help the next generation find a path to a good life.
Parker Thomas is a FUSE Corps Executive Fellow at the City of Fremont. Drawing on his experience in education and entrepreneurship, Thomas is spearheading a one-year initiative to develop a Maker Education program for Fremont Unified School District’s middle schools.