If your son or daughter could go to a community college, receive a two-year degree in manufacturing technology, and earn $58,000/year inside of 18 months, would you encourage it?
At first glance, the answer seems like a no-brainer, given that many four-year college grads are now making far less than that and paying off huge college loans. But a career in manufacturing apparently doesn’t have the required cache.
”There’s still an issue of image,” noted Maria Coons, vice president of workforce and strategic alliances for Harper College, a two-year institution in Illinois that offers an advanced manufacturing pathway. “We have to repackage and remarket manufacturing, and that’s what we’re attempting to do.”
Addressing an audience of engineers at the Medical Design & Manufacturing show in Chicago last week, Coons pointed to a Deloitte study showing that there are now more than 600,000 skilled manufacturing jobs in the US going unfilled. The same study showed that 82 percent of manufacturers have shortages of qualified manufacturing workers, with 56 percent anticipating the situation will get worse before it gets better, she told us.
”We have all kinds of manufacturers in our state who can’t find enough skilled workers,” Coons added. “In Illinois alone, there are an estimated 30,000 job openings.”
Indeed, the situation has become dire enough in Illinois that the state formed the Illinois Network for Advanced Manufacturing. The network includes such community colleges as Harper, which says its advanced manufacturing graduates earn an average of $58,000 a year after two years of classes and earn-while-you-learn experience. In the end, the program teaches students to run high-tech manufacturing equipment, such as multi-million dollar CNC machines. The jobs tend to be inextricably linked to math and technical skills, and are 180 degrees from the common public image of manufacturing, Coons said.
Unfortunately, though, that public image is still deeply ingrained, and is part of the reason why such programs can’t attract enough students. Coons pointed to the so-called “three Ds” (dark, dirty, and dead end), which unfairly permeate our culture’s mental image of manufacturing. Attendees at Coons’ speech concurred with that description. “There’s always been this image of manufacturing as a dirty environment,” noted attendee Domenic Lanzillotta, an executive who has spent more than 20 years in manufacturing. “Moms and dads just didn’t want their kids going into it.”
In recent years, manufacturing took another blow to its already-feeble US reputation when outsourced jobs began moving overseas. As they did, fewer students looked to it as a career, for fear that all the jobs would eventually move abroad.
Experts say, however, that US manufacturing is coming back, despite the fears. David Cole, chairman emeritus for the Center for Automotive Research, told us that manufacturing has rebounded strongly in the US, especially among makers of large products. “iPhones will probably never come back to the US,” Cole said. “If you can put a lot of high-priced electronics in a box and ship them easily, then you can do the manufacturing outside the US. But cars have reached the point where if you assemble them in China and ship them, the labor cost advantage will be offset by the shipping cost.”
Coons added that US manufacturers who build products here feel they have more control over quality, along with greater protection for proprietary technologies. “Here, manufacturers don’t have to worry about someone stealing their intellectual property,” she said.
For high school students, the growth potential is accelerated by the fact that tens of thousands of baby boomers in manufacturing are reaching their retirement years. Manufacturers say they need to replace that outgoing workforce, and require new workers who can operate multi-million-dollar machines with minimal on-the-job training. Ultimately, that translates to a bigger field of opportunities for students entering college.
“It’s coming,” Cole said of US manufacturing growth. “We’re seeing a fairly significant shift back to what’s important -- making things.”