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Bridging the Skills Gap—How Do We Get There from Here?

Jan. 19, 2018
As the job market brightens in the automation age, companies and other organizations are looking to new educational and training methods to fill the gap. And a four-year degree isn’t necessarily mandatory.

The range of opportunity for jobs in the automation age is huge—and promising. Entry-level, automation-age manufacturing jobs can start at $20 per hour with just a high-school diploma and a few months of training and professional certification. The jobs spectrum extends through traditional roles in marketing, sales, and management, through a full range of engineers and scientists.

While technical and computer skills are at the forefront of employers’ requirements, that gap is closely followed by:

  • A lack of problem-solving skills
  • Basic technical training
  • Math skills

Overall, less than half of the executives surveyed above in the Deloitte study indicate their employees have sufficient basic employability skills (attendance, timeliness, etc.) and the ability to work well in a team environment.

These statements were reinforced by interviews with Association for Advancing Automation (A3) members, who consistently pointed to the compelling need for employees with proficiencies and dedication to problem-solving, work ethic, lifelong learning, networking and mentorship, teamwork, and people skills. Bridging the skills gap presents a significant challenge that requires efforts from multiple stakeholders.

Efforts are underway that include K-12 STEM initiatives, vocational and technical training programs, and evolving degree programs from community colleges and universities. Manufacturers and automation suppliers agree that ongoing STEM initiatives are critical to the industry’s long-term ability to fill technical roles. The U.S. has seen little growth in the number of STEM graduates, while other countries—especially China, India, and Germany—continue to make dramatic improvements.

Apprenticeships and On-the-Job Training

While important, STEM efforts alone are not enough. RAMTEC Career Center in Ohio is home to the largest, most comprehensive robotics education center in the U.S. The center provides hands-on automation training and certification for high-school students and industry workers, using up-to-date equipment that matches what workers use in the real world.

Chuck Speelman, Superintendent of the Tri-Rivers Career Center, says that many four-year and some two-year institutions still don’t have enough hands-on learning opportunities that incorporate real-world automation systems being used in industry. That means the learning curve is still significant for graduates entering the workplace. And those degree programs aren’t ideal for all students.

“Most students and parents believe that the only way to be successful is to go to a four-year college right after high school,” says Speelman. “They don’t understand or appreciate the many different pathways and options that exist within the automation and advanced manufacturing careers. We all agree that the basic high-school education is not enough, but students need to be exposed and encouraged to know the other opportunities that exist.”

Those include real-world, industry-recognized certificates and training opportunities that lead directly to well-paying careers. This echoes statements from Rebecca Hartley, Chief Workforce Officer for the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute. This is a national, public-private partnership designed to foster and grow the manufacturing ecosystem through robotics. Hartley sees opportunities for parallel tracks, in which workers can move between education and industry, gaining training and certifications and advancing their skills as they need them.

This option is achieving traction as an alternative to the traditional (and expensive) high-school-to-college-to-job route that may not be ideal for all students. Amazon offers an innovative benefit for its hourly employees called the Career Choice program. It helps workers gain the skills needed for today’s most in-demand jobs, based on information from sources such as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The company pre-pays 95% of the cost of tuition for associates to go back to school and take courses related to in-demand fields—such as robotics, computer science, engineering, and IT—regardless of whether those skills are related to jobs at Amazon.

On-site classrooms allow college and technical classes to be taught inside fulfillment centers to make participation as easy as possible. Traditional apprenticeships offer one of the best ways to build workforce skills through on-the-job training that provides current, real-world experience with the technologies that manufacturers depend on.

Despite their advantages, apprenticeship programs that combine on-the-job learning with classroom education and mentorship declined 40% in the U.S. between 2003 and 2013. During that time, job postings in STEM occupations outnumbered the unemployed by almost two-to-one from 2009-2012, while employment in STEM occupations is expected to grow by 17% through 2018. In contrast, Germany ranks number one in global manufacturing talent, which seems to reflect the success of its “dual system” of vocational training that focuses on mechatronics and boasts participation by approximately 60% of the country’s youth.

The program combines classroom instruction with work experience in one of 344 available trades. According to Deloitte, several countries are trying to emulate this model. The U.S. automotive industry has historically been a strong advocate for apprenticeships, but the industry crisis and long economic downturn essentially resulted in the loss of a generation of new skilled tradespeople, such as electricians, mechanics, and die makers.

In 2017, for the first time since 2005, General Motors has eagerly indentured its first class of 200 apprentices to support its Global Manufacturing Systems (GMS) model for 2020. The model takes a highly efficient approach, with common technology platforms across the enterprise, to drive ongoing productivity and profitability—which is also driving the need for a new approach to skilled trades.

GM worked closely with the U.S. Department of Labor to adapt apprenticeship training to GM’s 2020 vision of technology needs, and partnered with the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union to roll out the new apprenticeship program. Apprentices now are evaluated not only for their technical skills, but also their ability to work in adaptable, team environments. And the new hybrid apprenticeship program is unique in letting apprentices apply experience and proficiencies against required training hours, allowing skilled apprentices to move into execution more quickly, and potentially cutting months or more than a year from the typically four-and-a-half-year program.

The GMS model and agreement from the union also enable GM to assign apprentices into high-demand programs when they graduate, rather than depending on the accuracy of four-year forecasts of demand for electric vehicles versus trucks, for instance. Now the company can assign graduating apprentices where the need is at the time of graduation, and they all have a solid, common technology experience. The result: GM fills the skills gap with trained GM apprentices, and workers get highly paid, rewarding jobs. GM is heavily engaged in continuing to grow its skilled trades apprentice program to support its ongoing business strategy.

Automation Drives Competitiveness and Creates Sustainable Careers

The automation age brings tremendous opportunities for companies to increase productivity, meet consumer demands for innovative, high-quality products, and drive the advancement of new industries. Skilled workers are crucial to companies’ success. For years, employers have ranked talent—defined as the quality and availability of highly skilled workers who facilitate a shift toward innovation and advanced manufacturing strategies—as the most critical driver of global competitiveness.

As new jobs arise, new approaches to education and training are also coming into play. They offer attractive and viable options for new entries to the workforce as well as for career-changers and underserved members, such as returning veterans, and raise diversity opportunities across industries. A3 members, partners, and colleagues are working hard to put programs in place across industries to develop and support this talent base and help bridge the skills gap. As with each stage in the industrial revolution, the automation age offers challenges, but also incredible opportunities.

Jeff Burnstein is President of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3).

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