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Commentary: It's time for collaboration

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Recently, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers conducted a study and identified that as many as 600,000 manufacturing jobs were estimated to be unfilled because of a shortage of skilled workers. The question of the day is, "Will the American education system ever truly partner with manufacturers to provide education and training required by tomorrow's employees?"

With all the presidential focus and fanfare regarding today's educational needs, the various school systems are still missing the mark. One can easily say that America's manufacturing education is in serious crisis, and no immediate fix is in the near future. One can say, for the most part, there is a serious disconnect between what is being provided in schools and what is required by manufacturers.

What is required is some type of linkage between the two groups, and, in some cases, it must begin at the local level. These linkages are not easily connected without a serious dialog among the local school districts. In some cases, a local organization, which represents various area companies, needs to approach the local school board and work with them in order to understand each other's mission and vision of collaborating to link each other's needs to ensure students have the skills and knowledge for the local manufacturers to have a workforce which has the correct skills and talents for tomorrow's business.

The entire concept of school and business collaboration requires "CHANGE," and, as we all know, change is difficult for some more than others. Albert Einstein once said, "The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them." With that being said, one must realize each of these groups, schools and businesses are driven by a different set of measures. Schools may be measured by test scores, and a publicly held business is measured by profit results. Both are good but drive different internal behavior. I believe today's educational standards have decreased so that even the below-average student moves to the next level. In business, this may be called "passing the incorrect parts," which will be eventually scrapped at a higher cost than when the defect was first detected. In school, the student is ill prepared for the next grade level and faces even greater problems instead of, in manufacturing terms, " reworking the students" to ensure they are prepared for the upcoming "form, fit, and function" or the ability to do the work at the next level. At the end of the day, the student is either a dropout or ill prepared for a job they will need to depend on to support themselves and perhaps a family. This is where the need for "change" within the educational system needs to take place in America. The sad fact is the problem continues to grow and is getting worse.

I'm not sure if school districts and those who work for them fully understand the collaboration needed to ensure a strong linkage. Lately, we have been hearing in the news how corporations and big business are generating increased profits, and, in most cases, doing it with fewer employees. Therefore, one can conclude that "they are working smarter and doing more with less." You can also say companies earn their money and do not receive it as a gift from the "money tree." One would also say schools derive their operating funds from taxes paid by businesses and people. So at the end of the day, if schools would collaborate with local businesses to ensure they have the educated and trained workforce required, business could generate increased revenues, resulting in increased taxes, and hire additional people, also resulting in increased taxes, and the schools would then be able to provide the required education, skills and training for their students to be more prepared to enter the job market to fill the estimated 600,000 manufacturing jobs currently unfilled due to a shortage of skilled workers. This shortage is being largely blamed on America's education system slipping and missing the mark in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math better known as (STEM).

In today's culture, a growing percentage of young individuals value many other things over the need for a STEM type of education. True, not every student is cut out for this educational stream, but then one must ask what educational stream, if any, are we providing them?

If one would stop and think about the skills required for today's manufacturing, we would realize we have migrated from skills requiring a great deal of manual labor and general skills to a group of employees requiring using CNC machines and robotics, etc., which require a more sophisticated set of skills, knowledge, and training.

In years past, the educational system in the United States provided students, who had a desire to learn a particular trade or skill, the opportunity to attend a vocational high school to learn these required skills, thus enabling them to enter the field of their choice with a general and basic knowledge and the practical skills necessary to get them started on their journey. It is very apparent that today's high school educational process focuses on preparing students for college or just graduating with the no student left behind mentality. This has created a serious gap in the skills required for those wanting to work in a trade and for those manufacturers searching for and seeking to employ qualified individuals; the result being those not attending college are required to enter the service industry or as an unskilled worker in the manufacturing sector. With a limited amount of positions in these areas, students are unemployed after graduating high school.

Some of our major European competitors, such as Germany, ensure the availability of a highly-skilled manufacturing workforce by offering high school students the opportunity to select their career track. If one chooses a technical trade, they are provided the education and training for them to be very successful in the field of their choosing. They not only attend vocational school, but are provided an internship with a company which then offers them the practical experience required. This methodology is both beneficial to the individual and to the companies, since this system of training and education provides a constant stream of highly- trained individuals who are well trained and enjoy their trade.

Today's educational system needs to reinvent itself and provide high school students with the option of learning a trade. We need to return to vocational education in the schools if we, as a nation or community, want to assist our manufacturers in locating the required employee skill sets vs. leaving it up to the manufacturers to provide the training for these individuals. If manufacturers can't obtain the required skilled work force, they will pack up and relocate to the state or country having potential individuals with these skills, which will lead to a depressed local or national economy.

We may not agree, but manufacturing is the blood and heartbeat of any well-developed nation. If you don't agree with this, review your history back to the time of the Industrial Revolution up until the 1950s and 1960s in America. Look at the growth and the growth related to the middle class population. America was the world's leading manufacturer. Technology was coming alive. Innovation was the name of the game, getting to market first, etc., all of which made America strong.

Today the world wants "Made in America" goods. Why do you think this is? Is it quality, technology, cost, etc.? There could be several reasons. The main thing is they want our manufactured products. Therefore, we must continue to ensure we have the workforce necessary to ensure we continue to grow this demand.

In conclusion, one can say, it is the responsibility of the combined effort of manufacturers and the educational system to ensure that today's students receive the skills, training, and knowledge for today's opportunities. In addition, today's educational system needs to be able to change rapidly to support the ever changing technologies used in the various types of manufacturing sectors. If the educational system continues to be unable to meet this manufacturing demand, we will continue to lose jobs to those countries which can, and this will continue to have a severe impact on our nation's economy and growth. To me, there is no excuse why this cannot be accomplished if we all collaborate as a nation and work together. We need to continue to be the world's leading manufacturer. Therefore, we need to continue to be able to change at a more rapid pace than our worldwide competitors. What we teach in our schools today will be outdated tomorrow. Technology is moving at the speed of light, and we must keep up or suffer the consequences.


Written by Joseph F. Mignone, president of JFM Global Associates.

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