Throughout the United States, government agencies are supporting advanced manufacturing with a multi-pronged attack. Some projects aim to help companies leverage technology to compete with low-wage regions, while others strive to create jobs while also upgrading educational programs to create a steady supply of skilled workers.
Many government agencies now view manufacturing as a field that creates new jobs. Though head counts are small compared to the number of manufacturing jobs lost in decades passed, skilled workers usually earn wages well above minimum wage. That’s prompting federal agencies and states like job-starved Illinois to focus on building an industrial infrastructure.
In November, the Department of Labor authorized $100 million in grants for its TechHire Initiative, which was established earlier this year. At least $50 million of that grant money will go toward programs for young Americans, ages 17 to 29, who have “barriers to training and employment,” according to a White House press release.
In July, 12 communities were added to the Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership (IMCP) initiative, doubling the total to 24. These 12 regions will be eligible for more than $1 billion in grants from 11 federal agencies working under the auspices of the Dept. of Commerce.
Manufacturing support isn’t limited to the federal government. States and cities are betting on manufacturing to bring new jobs. They’re also striving to attract companies by supplying a solid base of skilled workers.
Chicago, which has struggled to get companies to open facilities and hire new workers, now offers free community college education to high school students who have a B average. That’s part of a statewide effort to help boost job creation in digital manufacturing. Those jobs typically require more than a high school education.
“We’re not updated as a country for the 21st century,” says Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s Mayor. “We stop education at the 12th grade. “People need at least two years of university education to do most digital jobs. In Chicago, each of our seven city colleges is focused on a specific area. Richard J. Daley community college is focused on digital manufacturing.”
Adding jobs is critical for Illinois. A report by local think tank Illinois Policy says that since January of 2008, Illinois saw the biggest decline in the number of jobs of any state. The group cites a Bureau of Labor Statistics survey that found 216,000 fewer Illinoisans working than at the start of the recession in 2007, the worst of any state.
Many government programs in Illinois and elsewhere focus on training students for jobs in the digital future. Some focus on high school, leveraging the knowledge base of local businesses that may hire graduates.
“We started a partnership program that partners a school with a business that helps set the curriculum,” says Illinois state senator Linda Holmes, chair of the Committee on Commerce and Economic Development. “It’s been successful in reducing the number of companies that say they can’t find workers and graduates who can’t find jobs. We hope to replicate the program in other schools.”
Public-private partnership can help build jobs and help improve technology. IEEE-USA position statements on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education call for closer ties to businesses, educational institutions and scientific societies. A related position statement on job growth through manufacturing innovation also encourages public-private partnerships to invest in developing technologies.
There’s plenty of room for improvement in many U.S. factories. Higher levels of automation can reduce the differential that led many manufacturing companies to relocate to low wage countries. When robots and other equipment do much of the work, salaries paid to a few managers are often lower than the aggregate wages of large numbers of manual laborers. Many of today’s plants are far behind the technology curve.
“Today we see factories with 30-year-old PLCs being run by operators who use cell phones with far more capabilities than most of the factory automation system,” says William King, chief technology officer at UI Labs. “There’s a huge opportunity to upgrade; when digitization occurs, there are a lot of new opportunities.”
UI Labs oversees the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII), a federally-funded research and development organization that encourages factories across America to deploy digital manufacturing and design technologies. When President Obama picked Chicago as the home for DMDII in 2014, he said it would “transform manufacturing” with “advanced capabilities that the world has never seen.” In November (2015), DMDII awarded its first five national contracts, valued at more than $7 million.
Manufacturing still faces a major challenge: many young people don’t view it as a viable career path. That problem, familiar throughout the STEM world, is being addressed as part of the drive to create new jobs.
“We’re trying to get kids to understand that manufacturing isn’t just a job, it’s a career,” Mayor Emanuel says. “We organize field trips to let students see jobs, and see that they can train for them at Richard J. Daley community college.”
There are some signs that all the effort to improve manufacturing’s status is paying off. The Chicago-based German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest has seen solid interest in a program that promises students a two-year employment guarantee after they complete a three-year industrial apprenticeship.
“During their apprenticeship, they go to colleges, with tuition covered by eight companies that participate,” says Jorge Ramirez, president of the group. “So far, out of 99 students, we’ve only had one drop out.”
A recent Deloitte perception survey also said efforts to enhance manufacturing’s image are paying off. Researchers found that students and teachers who were involved with Manufacturing Day 2015, scheduled loosely around 1 October, were convinced that manufacturing provides careers that are both interesting and rewarding. Eighty one percent of student respondents viewed manufacturing positively, while 90 percent of educators indicated they are more likely to encourage students to pursue a career in manufacturing. The National Association of Manufacturers estimated that 400,000 people were involved in Manufacturing Day activities.
Terry Costlow has written about technology since the days of the 6 Mbyte hard drive. He’s contributed regularly to EE Times, Automation World, Automotive Engineering International, and IEEE Spectrum, as well as consumer publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Magazine and the Portland Oregonian.