Training Workforce

Collaboration Develops New Collar Workers

EP Editorial Staff | January 20, 2020

Manufacturer partnerships with educational institutions provide one pathway to developing the skilled workers needed today.

By Mike Brouse, Emerson

Today’s emphasis on obtaining a four-year degree has caused many students to ignore vocational training as a path to a rewarding career. Combined with a lingering stigma around blue-collar careers, it’s not difficult to see why we are experiencing a significant gap between trained workers and manufacturing jobs.

But that may not be the whole story.

In the post-World War II years, the United States built an impressive manufacturing infrastructure and took the global lead in production of goods and materials. Globalization changed the game by opening new markets and opportunities for low-cost production. It also set the stage for the widespread outsourcing we’ve experienced in recent decades. Though outsourcing initially created a boon for manufacturing, it meant layoffs for U.S. workers.

The financial crisis of 2008 caused more layoffs and helped cement the impression that manufacturing was a dead-end option for jobseekers. Students turned away from manufacturing careers without realizing that the industry as a whole was undergoing some major changes.

Technological advances have made today’s manufacturing production floor considerably more high-tech than before, requiring highly skilled workers who know how to use the technology safely and effectively. By the time workers who had been laid off in 2008 tried to come back to their manufacturing jobs, the parameters had changed, requiring retraining in digital-
automation technologies that are now the new normal.

New collar jobs

In many ways manufacturing jobs are no longer strictly blue collar. The term “new collar jobs” seems more applicable. No longer can a high-school graduate find an entry-level position in manufacturing. In most cases, they will need special skills training either through a community or technical college. With IIoT, the need for highly skilled workers who are comfortable with digital tools and equipment and can interpret the data becomes a necessity.

Upskilling and filling gaps in new-technology skills training requires the manufacturing industry to work with technical schools, two-year colleges, community colleges, and four-year universities, as well as policymakers, to shape academic programs, design curricula, and create apprenticeships that meet the needs of students and businesses.

Increasing numbers of companies are providing skills training in-house to their new hires and to their customers so workers know how best to use equipment safely and effectively. The types of training offered by manufacturers include hands-on classroom or work-floor training, e-learning modules and, in some cases, augmented reality (AR).

Equipment manufacturers are also creating learning platforms that incorporate their commonly used products. These are flexible, hands-on, customizable skids that a company or school can purchase and set up in their onsite learning space to help workers and students become proficient on equipment in a controlled setting.

A very successful example of industry and a college working together to provide workforce training is found at Ranken Technical College in St. Louis. The college provides hands-on learning in an integrated work-based experience in a microenterprise setup. This allows students to gain industrial training, certifications, college credit, and a part-time salary while they work in the industry and gain applicable experience. The result is students who are highly desirable employees for manufacturing.

Local manufacturers, as well as the automation industry, provide the Ranken program with the equipment they need workers to be able to use, such as the flexible and customizable skids. In turn, Ranken educators teach students how to use the equipment, troubleshoot problems, and understand how each piece fits within the larger processes at a given manufacturing facility. Programs, such as the one at Ranken, are proving to be highly successful partnerships and we are encouraged to see them replicated across the country.

Augmented learning

A new development in skills training is the use of AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality). AR and VR allow the user to perform a task and get a feel for the nuances of what that task entails while receiving instant performance feedback. This shortens the learning curve and builds confidence. These technologies also allow the existing workforce to participate in the training of new/younger workers, resulting in consistency and continuity as retirees are replaced.

There are distinct benefits to shortening the learning curve, as few workers want to invest years in mastering a skill set. It’s also a reality that workers rarely stay beyond five or ten years in one position. In addition, the generations coming into the workforce have grown up as digital natives and this type of learning is readily embraced.

Going forward

Higher education is playing a large role in helping close the manufacturing skills gap. Community and technical colleges are at the forefront of teaching and training new employees. These schools are establishing relationships with manufacturing companies and inviting industry leaders to become part of the solution.

Meanwhile, industry is working to establish and deepen relationships with schools to ensure that practical-skills training is part of the curriculum. With the heavy workloads on plant floors there is little time for on-the-job training, which is where apprenticeships, combined with classroom learning, become invaluable. In many ways these partnerships provide a strategic pipeline of skills development and introduce the opportunities available in manufacturing. The model can be replicated across the country, and we’re seeing more businesses and community colleges committing to it. EP

Mike Brouse, Manager, Global Workforce Development (mike.brouse@emerson.com), has been with Emerson Automation Solutions, Austin, TX, for 30 years. He has a mechanical engineering degree from Penn State Univ., State College, PA, and an international business degree from Regis Univ., Denver.

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