Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Thursday, October 6, 2022

Do You Know Where Your Workforce is Tonight? 

<img style="float: left;" src="" alt="" width="95" height="63" />There’s a literate, championship workforce that stands behind high tech manufacturing, but where do they come from?

Like many, I take great joy in the summer Olympics every four years. I’m not much of a TV watcher, but my YouTube is cranked up often and I’ve spent more time than I should watching Oscar Pistorius, the blade-runner.

Oscar is the South African double amputee who runs on carbon fiber legs. He has been a world champion in the Paralympics, but this year he competed head-to-head (or maybe leg-to-leg?) with everyone in the 400-meter event, taking second place in one of the preliminary races.

I marvel at his athletics, but also at the manufacturing technology in his legs. So do many others: Stacey Wagner of NIST’s Manufacturing Extension Program Blog posted an article highlighting Ossur Inc., the manufacturer of Oscar’s legs.  

Ossur specializes in composites and prides itself on the advanced technology that they have developed. Stacey goes on to point out other companies and laboratories developing composite materials technologies and then asks if this is something to which we should pay attention.

Yes! From the standpoint of manufacturing jobs, Stacey cites that the demand for materials engineers is expected to grow about 9% during the rest of this decade and that the median salary is already $83,000. But where do these engineers come from?

Stacey quotes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics “Occupational Outlook Handbook”, (OOH is an interesting place to spend some time if you are interested in the workforce the powers our manufacturing economy).

OOH provides comparative information for prospective employees on the requirements and rewards of occupations.  The general job categories that cover most of manufacturing are Architecture and Engineering, Computer and Information Technology, and Production.

There’s quite a divide in these statistics - in educational requirements, in earnings and in the prospective demand for these jobs. In most of the sub-categories of Architecture and Engineering and in Computer and Information Technology median incomes are high. As with materials engineers, demand is expected to grow about 9% in the next decade. Required education is at least a bachelor’s degree. However in Production median salaries are less than half those of an engineer, prospective job growth is only 5% and a high school education is generally sufficient.

Does this reflect the common wisdom that manufacturing jobs are becoming more “high tech” and that educational demands on future jobs have increased? Yes. Frequent statements from manufacturing segment management indicate that many jobs remain unfilled because they cannot find sufficient qualified high tech workers. See for example Carrie Houtman’s (Dow Chemical) statements at last December’s Townhall Meeting on Advanced Manufacturing . In fact this lack of a skilled workforce is cited as the pacing item in the introduction of technology into manufacturing businesses. Why is this?

Have a look at the OOH again and notice that education criteria fall mostly into two categories - bachelor’s degree or high school diploma. A report from the Harvard Business School argues that we should put more effort in between, into post-high-school job-requirement-oriented education, with some elements reminiscent of the European apprenticeship system.      

This report argues that educational requirements for manufacturing jobs have changed since their quoted baseline in 1970. At that time two-thirds of production jobs needed no more than high school and the remaining one-third needed college. That was closer to the education demographic of the time.

They argue that current technology requirements reverse this to about one-third high school, but two-thirds “post secondary.” But post-secondary does not necessarily mean a four-year college education. In fact it may actually be counterproductive to pressure this middle third of the workforce to get its workforce training by spending four years at the university.

Workforce oriented schools, like community colleges and for-profit universities, play a great role in this middle ground. They target practical training that can make a worker productive from the first day. Being more numerous and more local than four-year universities, they have a natural advantage in structuring work-study with local businesses, giving a flavor of Europe’s apprenticeship system in an American context. This gives an opportunity for local businesses to “check out” a student for prospective fit and is also an effective way for students to bring new technology into that company. 

The development of curricula leading to associate degrees and “practitioner certificates” should help to fill this need.  But how do we support this?

Right now times are tough in post-secondary education and our community colleges might have it toughest of all. In my discussions with community college colleagues they have few resources to develop these courses and that they can use help. Help can come from many quarters, and perhaps it should since these courses need expertise from both education and business professionals. We have a national economic interest in “producing and consuming” this workforce.

I suggest that we take this in our own hands and each do what we can, both personally and professionally. Even if resources were copiously available (they’re not), the development and delivery of business-oriented workforce education needs a range of expertise that no one organization has.  It takes businesses who know specifically what their current needs are, technology providers who know what hardware and software can provide, and schools who still remain the experts in education delivery. It also needs a means for coordinating efforts and providing outreach to prospective students and employers. 

Where do we start? There are literally dozens of technologies that need to be taught, supporting all aspects of manufacturing from product concept through design to production. There are many physical disciplines including the material science discussed above. But how would we pick out a place to start in this vast field with no obvious beginning? 

There is an underlying thread, a common tool that supports most of these disciplines: Scientific computing. This is where I’m putting my efforts because of its universality. But this is also where I can personally contribute.

There are many efforts to develop scientific computing curricula for this workforce, but I’ll describe one example. The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) in Detroit, Michigan is a forum for manufacturers to learn about and share technology. NCMS is “membership-based” meaning that activities are driven by members rather than the organization itself. It provides an infrastructure to coordinate the efforts of members. 

NCMS’ special interest group on digital manufacturing supports workforce education. This group is composed of more than manufacturers. We have educators, small businesses, computer manufacturers, and independent software vendors all lending their expertise to help define elements of a curriculum- to help create it, to make it known to the community and to help deliver it.

There are currently dozens of laboratories, universities, and companies who form the backbone of our digital manufacturing special interest group. And we are always looking for more who share our desire to bring computing technology to manufacturing and who want to contribute to manufacturing technology education. I invite you to come see what we are all about and to join us. Please visit this page on the NCMS website or contact me at [email protected].

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