Are partnerships between educators and employers the simple solution to manufacturing’s skills gap?

At CompanyWeek, our reporters speak to dozens of manufacturers about their company’s particular challenges and associated needs each year. Workforce issues frequently figure prominently, especially those related to recruiting and retaining professionals with the experience and skills today’s manufacturing technologies require. This skills gap is often cited as a reason for the difficulty employers have filling open positions at their businesses.

They’re not alone.

A report produced by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute found that it took manufacturers an average of 93 days to fill a position for a skilled production worker in 2018, due, at least in part, to difficulty finding workers with the necessary skills. The report’s authors projected that this skills gap could leave 2.4 million manufacturing positions unfilled between 2018 and 2028, making it increasingly challenging for manufacturers to deliver on open orders, respond to customer needs, and expand production.

Copyright ©2020 photo by David Bohrer / National Assoc of Manufacturers

Given rising trade school enrollment, which means more skilled workers looking for manufacturing jobs, one must wonder what issues lay at the core of this pervasive problem. Are trade schools and community college programs somehow failing to teach the competencies today’s manufacturing workforce needs? We reached out to Tony Davis, senior director of workforce initiatives at the Washington, D.C.-based Manufacturing Institute to get his insight on the issue.

“Trade school enrollment may be increasing, but it’s a mixed bag,” Davis explains. “Some roles, maybe those with lower skill sets, are able to be taught effectively at a community college or trade school level. But those jobs aren’t necessarily ones that are allowing for upward mobility. They may not be jobs that provide security and satisfaction to encourage employees to stay engaged.”

Davis notes that higher-paying manufacturing jobs tend to require a higher level of educational preparation. “They require a level of skill and training that many of the programs at community colleges and trade schools aren’t prepared to teach,” he continues. “This might be because they lack modern equipment for hands-on training or are unable to afford to hire instructors from private industry to teach at their facility.”

With these constraints in mind, what’s the solution? How can educational programs ensure they’re producing graduates with the skills manufacturing employers need and who will stay with those employers for the long term? Davis says the answer may be found in collaborative partnerships as demonstrated by FAME’s AMT model of workforce training.

What are FAME and AMT?

FAME, or the Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education, is an educational and outreach pillar of the Manufacturing Institute. It oversees several educational programs including the Advanced Manufacturing Technician program, or AMT.

“The AMT program started as a training program developed by Toyota when they opened their first U.S. facility in Georgetown, Kentucky,” Davis explains. “When Toyota noted that the program was growing beyond their facilities and wanted to find a new home for it that would allow for expansion, it was acquired by the Manufacturing Institute. As a model, it has proven itself to be lasting, resilient, and effective.”

Copyright ©2020 photo by David Bohrer / National Assoc of Manufacturers

How the AMT program works

“This program was developed to address the skills gap specifically pertaining to maintenance technician positions,” Davis says. “Maintenance technician is usually a difficult position to fill. It’s the epitome of a job that requires a high degree of training for someone to be successful in it — especially because most manufacturers have been moving towards multi-skilled maintenance technicians rather than single-skilled candidates.”

Davis notes that FAME’s AMT program has been producing multi-skilled maintenance technicians for entry-level roles for more than 10 years through an integration of technical education, professional behavior instruction, and MCEs, or manufacturing core exercises.

Students in the five-semester program attend participating community colleges and universities as well as practice their skills hands-on at local manufacturing employers. The program is currently available in 13 states, at 32 community colleges, four universities, and boasts 395 collaborative employer partners.

Students acquire their technical knowledge while completing a two-year associate degree in a manufacturing-related discipline. During this time, they also receive continual reinforcement of professional behaviors such as effective communication, interpersonal business relationships, teamwork, and timeliness.

“We’re developing these folks professionally in a way that will ensure they are more engaged and aware employees,” Davis says. “They have the ability to stay on the job much longer.” The program’s MCEs include safety, Lean manufacturing methodology, problem solving, and machine reliability.

The program puts students in a school environment that mimics a modern manufacturing work environment for two days each week. “These are advanced manufacturing centers where we have simulators, robots, process logic controllers, and trainers to make sure we’re teaching topics on real equipment,” says Davis.

Copyright ©2020 photo by David Bohrer / National Assoc of Manufacturers

Students also spend three days a week at local participating manufacturers. “These employer mentors help to make sure our students are aligning their academics with the real-world environment,” he adds. “And at the end of five semesters, we’ve produced a very knowledgeable, very diligent employee who is under 21 years of age, already several years ahead of their peers, and ready to take on a very long, rewarding career.”

The bottom line

While FAME’s AMT program addresses a specific manufacturing role, Davis believes community colleges and partner employers could utilize the same model to produce highly skilled entry-level candidates for any in-demand manufacturing job.

“It’s going to take a very intentional effort to train folks to avoid the gap that we’ve been plagued with for so long,” he continues. “Community colleges will have to do a better job of digging deeper with their curriculum. And employers are going to have to lead and manage these programs as well as help find instructors who can teach at the level at which they need these skills to be taught.”