Pinning Down Advanced Manufacturing Skills

Susan Hall
Slide Show

10 Tech Skills that Are Heading the Way of the Dinosaur

Stories about the difficulty in finding people with the right skills for manufacturing jobs are becoming more frequent, even amid all the talk about bringing manufacturing back to the United States.


The Manufacturing Institute has been working to create a credentialing system, bringing together industry, universities and the federal government to upgrade the skills of American workers so they can take on jobs in next-generation manufacturing. That requires more precisely defining the needed skills for tomorrow's factory workers.


The problems aren't limited to the graying population of factory workers, that the new generation isn't that interested in factory work and the vicious circle of factories cutting jobs in down cycles, prompting community colleges and tech schools to downscale training programs, then companies not being able to find trained workers when things pick back up. This piece at the Council on Foreign Relations site calls for improved relations - trust - between companies, governments and unions, the prospect of which one of the commenters finds "too funny."


Factory work itself is changing, as a long piece in The Atlantic points out. It tells the story of Maddie Parlier, a Level 1 (unskilled) worker for an auto-parts manufacturer, whose teen pregnancy left her unable to attend college, and Luke Hutchins, a Level 2 skilled machinist. Writer Adam Davidson finds increasingly little opportunity for Maddie to gain the skills required to move to Level 2, defined as a person who knows how to set up the machine and precisely adjust it, which pays about 50 percent more. Of Luke's skills, he writes:

At Spartanburg [Community College], he studied math-a lot of math. ... He studied algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. "If you know calculus, you definitely can be a machine operator or programmer." He was quite good at the programming language commonly used in manufacturing machines all over the country, and had a facility for three-dimensional visualization-seeing, in your mind, what's happening inside the machine-a skill, probably innate, that is required for any great operator. ...

An EETimes article on an Energy Department conference last week points to the need for design skills, as well as "soft skills" such as critical thinking, leadership and collaborative abilities. It quotes market researcher Stefan Heck of McKinsey & Co., saying:

What we have to shift to is the kind of manufacturing that involves technology, involves automation, involves engineering skill sets, involves more complicated kinds of tasks things that actually require design, require looking at 3-D CAD drawings, require particular skills to make sure the quality is high." He offered as examples jet and rocket engines, products that are not only strategically important but require precise tolerances, very exact machining and control of temperature cycles during design and manufacturing.

In a Washington Post article, academician and entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa foresees manufacturing jobs of the future in three categories: new materials, new processes and complex integration of automated systems. All three will require people with more training, especially with computer systems, and critical thinking. This training, Wadhwa says, will require the overhaul of U.S. educational system. He writes:

... the new manufacturing will create new types of jobs. We can only guess what these jobs will be and what new industries will emerge, however. The one thing we can be sure about is that we will require a work force with much different skills and education than what was required for the manufacturing jobs of yesteryear....


Tomorrow's manufacturing work force will have to be prepared to do new jobs that are less mechanical and, instead, require creativity and thought. There is no shortage of problems to solve, products to build, and technologies to develop.

That level of thought required would provide employment and better worker engagement, despite the march of robots onto the factory floor.

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