Manufacturers across the United States are targeting schools and colleges to let young people know there is more to manufacturing than an assembly line.
"People still have the idea that manufacturing is a dirty dungeon place," said Andy Bushmaker of KI Furniture, a maker of school desks and cafeteria tables in Green Bay, Wis. The goal, Bushmaker said, is to get people to see manufacturing jobs as the high-tech, high-skilled and high-paying careers they can be in the second decade of the 21st century.
Today's manufacturers, whether they are making cars, airplanes or iPhones, are looking for engineers, designers, machinists and computer programmers. Manufacturing has moved from manual mills and lathes to computerized numerical control equipment and 3-D printers. Hand-held welders are being replaced with robotic welders. Industrial maintenance mechanics no longer need to know how to use a wrench, but have to be able to operate a "programmable logic control," or a digital computer, to fix the machines.
Many of the jobs pay well — the average manufacturing worker in the United States earned $77,505 in 2012, including pay and benefits — but they can be hard to fill.
Nationwide, employers reported last year that skilled trades positions were the most difficult to fill, the fourth consecutive year this job has topped the list, according to the 2013 Manpower Group talent shortage survey. A 2011 industry report estimated that as many as 600,000 manufacturing jobs were vacant that year because employers couldn't find the skilled workers to fill them, including machinists, distributors, technicians and industrial engineers.
Industry leaders in Kansas, Georgia, Rhode Island and Delaware this month joined the "Dream It. Do It." campaign started by the Manufacturing Institute, an affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers. The goal of the program, which now has participants in 29 states, is to recruit students into manufacturing by educating parents, teachers and counselors about employment opportunities.
"It's critical for us to continue to promote manufacturing careers as more and more retirements happen," Bushmaker said.
The NEW Manufacturing Alliance also has produced videos that teachers use to demonstrate practical applications for math on a production line — from trigonometry to software optimization to robotics.
President Barack Obama wants to build a network of "manufacturing hubs" to bring together companies, universities and other academic and training institutions to develop manufacturing techniques. The president announced in February a public-private partnership near Detroit devoted to developing lightweight metals and another in Chicago to concentrate on digital manufacturing. Manufacturing hubs already have been established in Ohio and North Carolina. The initiatives use money from the Defense and Energy departments that is already budgeted, since Congress has balked at the president's $1 billion price tag for the hubs. As part of this effort, employers such as Dow, Alcoa, and Siemens are partnering with community colleges in California and Texas on apprenticeships in advanced manufacturing occupations, such as welding.
In Minnesota, a coalition of 24 community colleges is pioneering a statewide apprenticeship model in mechatronics.
Last month, the Obama administration announced $100 million in federal grants for creating or expanding apprenticeship programs.
Apprenticeships are "underappreciated and underutilized," according to Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez.
Perez said that when he hears a parent say, "I don't want my kid to do an apprenticeship; I want my kid to go to college," he points to the program at Tampa Electric, which pays apprentices about $32 an hour as they learn how to maintain and repair electrical power systems and equipment. They can earn as much as $70,000 as full-time employees. "Some of the upper management at Tampa Electric started out as lines people," Perez said.
"There is a bright future in America for people who work with their hands," Perez said. "We need to do a better job of marketing it, explaining to parents and others that these jobs are tickets to the middle class."