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U.S. Manufacturing Needs More Tech-Savvy Workers

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The U.S. frets about losing manufacturing jobs to China -- and with justification. A recent Economic Policy Institute study indicates that its uneven trade balance with China cost the U.S. 2.3 million jobs and $19.4 billion in lost wages between 2001 and 2007.

 

Some experts have suggested that U.S. manufacturers could offset China's low-cost advantage by shifting to more sophisticated processes that employ advanced automation rather than manual labor.

 

Great idea, but there's a snag: a lack of workers with the skills needed to operate such systems. Tech providers are stepping up outreach and training programs in an effort to attract young workers, according to a Food Engineering article. Potential hires remain largely unaware of such opportunities because media coverage tends to focus on lost jobs and on staff shortages in engineering. Says Fred Vetter, VP of manufacturing at Oregon Freeze Dry (OFD) Inc.:

To be successful, every engineer needs at least 12 good technicians behind him.

Vetter helped organize an engineering internship program at Oregon State University that, over the last 25 years, has helped produce hundreds of engineers now working in manufacturing throughout the Pacific Northwest. Such programs are increasing, along with on-site training programs provided by vendors like Mettler-Toledo, which makes in-line QA sensors used to measure turbidity, dissolved oxygen and other variables in fluids such as beer.

 

But the industry shouldn't focus on machine-specific training, warn experts, who say that workers need multi-disciplinary training that would prepare them to use a variety of new automation-driven technologies. The article mentions several such programs being offered by community colleges around the country. I wrote about the growing trend of companies partnering with community colleges earlier this month.

 

Says Fred Haynes, dean of the engineering and industrial technology department at Oregon's Linn-Benton Community College:

You really need to get in front of the younger students and their parents to make them understand the complexity of today's manufacturing environment and the availability of family-supporting wages for skilled workers.

The article helpfully includes contact information for Haynes and representatives of other companies and community colleges that are working to address the worker shortage.

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