The answer: Do both. Baby Boomers are taking their intellectual capital into retirement with them, and manufacturers are turning to technology and training to solve what is quickly becoming a dire skills shortage.
There was a disturbing headline in the Chicago Tribune recently. It read, “Caterpillar CEO: We Can’t Find Enough Skilled Workers.” The article went on to say that, despite the country’s high unemployment, the company can’t find people with the right skill sets to work in manufacturing operations.
According to Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman, this stems from a lack of proper schooling. “The education system in the United States basically has failed them and we have to retrain every person we hire,” he told the newspaper.
The recently proposed American Jobs Act offers as a short-term plan for jobs creation the modernizing of at least 35,000 public schools, with renovations and Internet-ready classrooms. It’s nice that our kids will enjoy more-comfortable classrooms as they surf the Net, find new friends on Facebook, and one hopes, access information that will help them in their studies. But this won’t do anything to prepare them for the jobs we’ll need to fill in the future. I think the emphasis should be on education reform, not building renovations.
Manufacturers are already suffering as Baby Boomers retire en masse, leaving a gaping hole where properly trained operations management workers used to be. That hole needs to be filled, but it seems there is no one ready, willing, or able to step in and fill their shoes. So, what are the options? Some companies are considering replacing humans with robots. Others are opting for other forms of automation that reduce the reliance on people. The Virginia-based Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM) is one organization that is leaning toward the latter option.
Earlier this month I met CCAM president David Lohr, who told me that CCAM launched last year as a partnership between manufacturers and engineering schools. Seven manufacturing members participate in this collaborative research community designed to develop cutting-edge factory floor technology, including simulation, virtual manufacturing, and other forms of production automation to accelerate performance and time-to-market.
“We are about creating practical solutions to real-world problems that can be rapidly accelerated into the commercial space and deliver immediate payback to companies,” Lohr said.
For example, the group is researching new sensing technologies that can improve machine cycle time as well as monitor the movement of workers on the factory floor. “The goal,” according to Lohr, “is to develop new strategies and new enhancements to improve productivity and the ergonomics of the factory floor to drive cost down and productivity up.”
While CCAM’s focus is on technology, Lohr is quick to point out that the group’s research activity is underpinned by aggressive workforce development. CCAM is focusing on how to capture knowledge electronically and distribute it across the enterprise. the organization also is planning a large internship program that will continuously rotate engineering and science students through the CCAM facility. This will groom young engineers and scientists to work in the manufacturing factory of the future. But it does not get to the root of the problem, which is how to get kids interested in engineering as a career path early on and give them a proper education so that they can be productive members of a manufacturing team on day one. No re-training necessary.
The skills shortage we now face requires that we view education and automation technology as intertwined: Technology and proper training go hand-in-hand. If we turn our attention to this now, we can accomplish two things: Fix the unemployment problem for the long term and get American manufacturing back on track.