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Making Makers: How Educators And Employers Can Rebuild The Manufacturing Sector

By Eva Bloomfield, National Director, Content Creation & Brand, Hope Street Group

The history of manufacturing runs deep in this country. America emerged from an agricultural economy into the industrial revolution in the late 19th and early 20th century, sweeping into the role of industrial powerhouse of the world by the 1950s. And manufacturing continues to be an economic force today with 12.33 million manufacturing workers in the United States, accounting for 9% of the workforce. In 2013, the manufacturing sector employed 12 million workers (which amounts to 8.8% of total U.S. employment) and generated $2.1 trillion in GDP (12.5 percent of total U.S. gross domestic product). Manufacturing has also proven to be a lucrative pathway for those who choose to go the non-college route; in 2012-2013, those without college degrees working in manufacturing earned 10.9% more than comparable workers in the rest of the economy.

MAKINGMAKERS_Graphic2(stat)Yet, despite the influence of the sector and pay potential of its career pathways, employment in manufacturing is struggling. Like most industries, manufacturing did not escape the downturn of the 2008 recession and sent numerous jobs overseas. America watched skilled labor jobs disappear. And, while the sector has seen a highly promising recovery with jobs coming back over the last several years, the damage done in 2008 has lingered. According to a recent report, 80% of manufacturers report a moderate or serious shortage of qualified applicants for skilled and highly skilled production positions. Furthermore, the U.S. labor market is changing at a rapid speed. The sector is faced with the constant challenge of the upgrading and diversification of necessary skills.

Recognizing the importance and urgency of the skills and hiring gap in the manufacturing sector, Alcoa Foundation and Hope Street Group have teamed up to produce a second report in their Makers series, Making Makers: Rebuilding the Manufacturing Workforce through Competencies and Credentials. The report zeroes in on current hindrances in manufacturing that have lead to the aforementioned gaps, including the unknown requirements for viable manufacturing jobs, the need for improved signals from employers, the inability of preparation to keep pace with changing requirements and the lack of transparency about what it takes for success. Making Makers then goes on to frame solutions to remove the identified barriers through integrated competency and credentialing models and proposes an innovative model for a fully integrated manufacturing ecosystem.

MAKINGMAKERS_Graphic1(Chelsee)Cindy Jordan is overseeing one such solution: Sealtron, Inc.’s Machine Operator Apprenticeship Program, a partnership with Partners for a Competitive Workforce (PCW) and supported by Southwest Ohio Region Workforce Investment Board and the Workforce Investment Board of Butler, Clermont and Warren Counties. Sealtron, Inc., a leading manufacturer of electronic instruments and electromechanical devices, depends on the employment of highly skilled machine operators. Over the last few years, however, they have struggled to find candidates with the necessary skill sets. Like the other employers profiled in the Making Makers report, they decided to take the reigns. They partnered with PCW and Cincinnati State Technical & Community College to develop a hands-on training program. For 18 months, candidates awarded the grant would receive on the ground training four days a week being paid for their work and end the week with a full day in the classroom.

They found their candidate in Jason Brookes. In 2012, as he describes it, Jason made a conscious decision to “make something of himself.” He landed in landscaping for the next 1.5 years. While he enjoyed the work, he was eager to find a career path that was both intellectually stimulating and had the potential for upward mobility. The Machine Operator Apprenticeship Program proved to be that opportunity. After he completed the 18 month program, he secured a position that was more lucrative and gratifying than what he previously had when working in landscaping. He describes the satisfaction he finds in the ever challenging field of manufacturing: “For those who want to learn and get better, this is the field for them. There’s always room for improvement.” Along with a higher salary, Jason finds deep gratification in being able to see the finished products from his work, the fruits of his labor and expertise. When asked about his foreseeable future, Jason says he anticipates staying and moving upward in manufacturing.

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As with Sealtron, Inc., manufacturing employers across the country are confronting the challenge of the availability of stable, high-paying middle skills jobs and the lack of skilled workers to fill them. And the need for skilled workers is only going to increase: over the next decade, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will likely be needed, and 2 million are expected to go unfilled due to the skills gap. In the face of a shortage of skilled candidates and a quickly evolving industry and marketplace, the sector, as described in the Making Makers report, is shifting gears from the traditional educational model and into an employer-driven, competency-based training model. Ryan Kish, the program manager at Alcoa Foundation, states: “We are proud to support this new research from Hope Street Group on such a major challenge being faced by manufacturing employers. Making Makers lays out the best practices employers are utilizing to prepare individuals to fill the numerous middle-skill jobs currently available in the sector, as well as creating a vision for what a more efficient jobs system could look like.”

Manufacturing is still a cornerstone of the American workforce. But the need to evolve our training and hiring practices to ensure that we continue to produce future generations of highly-skilled individuals is evident. To borrow from the Jason Brookes mantra: There is always room for improvement. And, in this case, that improvement is a necessity.

Making Makers is directly informed by Hope Street Group’s national Sync Our Signals (SOS) initiative, working to re-engineer America’s job market.

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