Manufacturing is undergoing another revolution. The first was powered by steam water and coal. The second: powered by electricity.
Today, we are in the midst of a technological revolution that is changing the proficiencies required for both skilled and unskilled labor to be successful.
"We had a first and second industrial revolution, now we have this taking place in manufacturing, and it's requiring new skills at greater proficiencies to maintain complex equipment," says Brian Glowiak, vice president of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Education Foundation (SMEEF).
In addition, those who have not yet entered the U.S. workforce – students in high school and college – are unaware of the opportunities available within manufacturing, especially careers that have a STEM component.
Economic projections point to a need for approximately 1 million more STEM professionals than the United States will produce at the current rate over the next decade if the country is to retain its historical preeminence in science and technology, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The manufacturing sector in particular has the potential to support 5 million jobs in addition to the 12 million workers already employed. This includes careers that require both four-year degrees as well as post-high school certification programs offered by two-year community colleges and vocational schools, according to SMEEF.
"[Manufacturers] are stressed because they cannot find or track the skilled talent that they need," Glowiak says. "The education system is inadequate. What we're doing is we're building awareness among high school students and providing the skills that are needed to align with manufacturing today and in the near future."
The lack of interest or knowledge of opportunities in STEM, combined with the onset of Baby Boomer retirement, could accelerate the widening gap in the manufacturing workforce. Because of this, organizations across the country are teaming up to provide outreach to students across the country.
A PRIME Example
One such effort is the Partnership Response in Manufacturing Education (PRIME), a nationwide educational initiative established by SMEEF in 2011. The program originally was implemented in six high schools and now has grown to 40 schools in 22 states.
"We're eagerly looking to grow this network," Glowiak says. "There are so many opportunities in so many schools across the country. The forecast of 2 million jobs that may go unfilled really is keeping many manufacturers awake at night. So, we're doing our best to address that crisis."
Implementing the PRIME initiative in a given region or community begins with contacting local manufacturers to identify their workforce needs.
Next, PRIME representatives translate the skillsets needed to a school district's superintendent, principal and other educators who actively participate in classroom, laboratory and scholarship components. The result is a structured format built directly into a student's curriculum rather than an after-school educational opportunity.
The goal, Glowiak says, is to provide students with industry-relevant credentials that document their skillsets to a future employer in areas such as welding, precision toolmaking and robotics, just to name a few.
Once they graduate with this knowledge, students have the option to further their education at a trade school or university, or they can postpone their educational journey and immediately begin to earn income in a manufacturing setting.
Just a HUNCH
Just like PRIME, the High School Students United with NASA to Create Hardware (HUNCH) program is working to enhance STEM education in schools across the country.
The HUNCH initiative was developed 14 years ago by NASA's Stacey Hale and Bob Zeeck who saw a need for hardware solutions to issues astronauts encountered during training. They decided giving students the opportunity to work with NASA by providing engineering and technology training would better prepare them to enter the workforce, a view NASA then began to support and implement.
"The idea is to get the students the latest methods and the latest equipment to get them trained to walk into next level of life, whether it's academia or workforce," says Blake Ratcliff, HUNCH program manager.
To date, more than 14,000 students have utilized the program, which offers them options to build NASA hardware and software, some of which has been used in training or on the International Space Station, as well as other areas such as culinary arts and communications.
Recently, because both PRIME and HUNCH have similar underlying goals, the two initiatives have teamed up to integrate additional real-world training and projects in schools across the country.
"We feel like we're preparing them," Ratcliff says. "We're giving them the right tools, the right projects and the right instruction. The emphasis is that we're really getting to industry involvement. When they graduate from high school, we want them to be ready to move to the next level. That's our goal."
STEM in the EHS Field
The skills gap not only is present in the traditional manufacturing setting but also extends to occupational health and safety careers as well.
While students may show an interest in STEM education in engineering, biology, or toxicology, many of them are not aware of careers in areas such as industrial hygiene, says Sue Marchese, director of marketing and communications for the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA).
Because of this, AIHA is engaging its members in the effort to educate students about the pathways that exist.
"We always say that it's like CSI was many years ago – 15 or 20 years ago nobody knew what a forensic scientist was," Marchese says. "We're hoping to educate STEM students – because they either have a proclivity towards research and prevention of illness or correction of illness – that industrial hygiene not only is out there, but a growing field and it pays quite well."
The organization's membership is aware that the industrial hygiene profession needs to be perpetuated, she says. So, AIHA has begun to work with its local chapters to bring educational materials and seminars to local school districts.
Much of the effort to date has been grassroots, with association members volunteering to present to classrooms full of STEM students, using multimedia toolkits, slideshow presentations, videos, dossiers and comic books.
So far, small achievements along the way already have shaped students and provided public outreach about careers in industrial hygiene, Marchese says.
Logan Smith, a high school senior, from Bloomington, Ill. provided the following feedback after an AIHA-sponsored education session:
"Industrial hygiene is an important and often overlooked part of the workplace. An industrial hygienist's job is to minimize or eliminate hazards in a work environment.
They must partner with workers to detect and correct health issues in the workplace...." he wrote. "This video has influenced me to consider industrial hygiene as a possible career choice in my life. In my own workplace, I often point out safety issues that are overlooked or need attention. I personally believe there are many things in life and the workplace that are hazardous and can be avoided, but often are not."