Guest Article: STEM Education and the Future of Manufacturing in Massachusetts
MassMEP recently received the following guest blog post by Steve Jacoby relating to the need for manufacturers to become involved in STEM education at the high school level to ensure companies' future growth and success. Directly below is an update on the programs MassMEP has implemented to meet the concerns raised in Mr. Jacoby's blog.
Three years ago, led by industry leaders, MassMEP developed the Manufacturing Advancement Center Workforce Innovation Collaborative. MACWIC was formed to bring the all the key players together. One of the early initiatives was to discuss the needs and the disconnects that have prevented schools from turning out the next generation workforce that is so desperately needed. This is an employer led collaborative effort focused on providing more people with the right skills. This collaboration between manufacturers/employers, educators, and students is focused on preserving and passing on critical manufacturing skills to the next generation.
The group helped develop Basic Manufacturing Skills proctored testing which has been given to machine technology students at more than half of the 30 technical high schools in Massachusetts. The Basic Manufacturing Skills Level 1 tests Basic Math, Blue Print Reading, Metrology, Safety and Workplace Readiness, and is used as a baseline to help schools assess strengths and shortcomings in their programs. The continued testing of the programs will enable them to focus on improving the outcomes of a system that is aligned with industry needs. The testing was developed by a group of manufacturers and educators and will be updated as different skills set needs are addressed.
This is just one program that MACWIC has been instrumental in delivering to address the workforce needs of Massachusetts manufacturers. MACWIC is encouraging manufacturers and educators to get involved as they attempt to create a competency-based credentialing system, the Applied Manufacturing Technology Pathway Certification, established across the state. Please join them at http://www.macwic.org
STEM Education and the Future of Manufacturing in Massachusetts
By Steve Jacoby, Applied Interactive
Until recently, Massachusetts enjoyed quite a long and illustrious history as a bustling manufacturing center. At various points in our past, the commonwealth was a truly dominant global force in such diverse industries as textiles, wire production, shipbuilding, leather goods, precision machining, metals, and paper.
While some of these industries still have a presence here, they are - at best - a mere shadow of their former selves. Sadly, the situation does not appear to be improving. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts experienced a net drop of 2.7% in manufacturing employment from December 2009 to October 2013.
A Brief Look Back
Massachusetts entered the 20th century as the home of many world-class manufacturers serving a broad spectrum of industries. However, with large-scale military conflicts and fiscal downturns disrupting a newly global economy, a bright and unblinking light soon began to shine on a critical failure within the manufacturing model as introduced by the Industrial Revolution. It became apparent that the success and economic welfare of entire cities cannot be tied solely to the rise and fall of a single industry because, when fickle market demand for an industry's products goes down, entire populations can be left destitute.
As a case in point, let's remember what happened when the textile industry (quite literally) went south. Cities like Lowell, Lawrence, Chicopee, and Holyoke were hit hard, each left scrambling to attract new employers who could either afford to pay a workforce long accustomed to the higher wages they earned as skilled labor, or could somehow convince those same workers to accept lower wages. Both tasks proved daunting. There were certainly successes, but there always seemed to be more failures. An entire economic sector was slowly dying.
Social Bias Leads to an Influx of New Employers - and Manufacturing Goes Offshore
More and more, it appeared as if manufacturing was on its way out in Massachusetts. From that vacuum emerged highly successful technology and service sectors. Unfortunately, generous incentives offered by municipalities wishing to lure new employers eventually created a distinct - if at times almost subliminal - "favored industry" status in the minds of the emerging workforce. Over time, this fostered a societal bias in favor of these newer industries, more often than not at the expense of the manufacturing sector.
For quite some time, and still to some extent today, common wisdom held that it was somehow preferential to have the next generation of your family working outside the manufacturing industry. The thought behind this was that lower-wage, offshore labor should perform the "dirty work" while we gradually morphed ourselves into a nation of white collar executives and managers. While this may have sounded appealing at first, its impracticality quickly became apparent.
A Different World
During our manufacturing heyday, when a young person's career opportunities were largely limited to those offered by whatever industry dominated the local area, his education and training was often tightly focused on the skill sets valued by local industry. In that respect, utilizing the role of the apprentice worker (in many ways the equivalent of today's "intern") proved to be quite an efficient means of delivering a steady stream of skilled workers. Extensive on-the-job training was the norm because a worker would, far more often than not, spend their entire career working for the same employer, making the initial investment in their training worthwhile.
It was a simpler time, with even simpler job requirements.
Enter the modern manufacturing era when ownership, management, and the workforce are dealing with entirely different societal forces than had been the case in times past. A stagnant "white collar" job market combined with a renewed interest in re-shoring (bringing off-shore manufacturing back home) have many domestic manufacturers now enjoying a resurgence. Some found a new niche for an existing product line while others transitioned to an entirely new product line. Some survived with management structure intact while others found success after being acquired by the employees and restructured under an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. (Remarkably, while ESOPs are found in all industries, fully 22% of them are in the manufacturing sector - and there is no shortage of local success stories.)
Increased Need - and Demand - for STEM Education
Adding to the complexity of the issue of manufacturing jobs in Massachusetts are recent advances in technology with which a typical entry-level employee must now already be familiar. More often than not, this makes it necessary for workers to develop a solid foundation in science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics (STEM) to be successful. The sheer number of career categories that now depend on a STEM-based education has increased exponentially in recent years, further widening the spectrum of those pursuing admissions to our vocational and technical schools.
Sadly, at the moment, our schools are just not up to the challenge.
Vocational and technical schools in Massachusetts are currently dealing with an enormous backlog of qualified students who are not able to attend the school of their choice due solely to a critical lack of space and school resources. In stark contrast to days past when vocational school applicants were primarily those that had little hope of gaining admission to a college or university, the available slots are now highly prized and extremely competitive. This means that thousands of otherwise well-qualified students are being left behind - a clearly unacceptable situation. As a consequence, many schools are now being forced to undergo expansion and renovations to accommodate the larger student load.
With our vocational and technical schools once again pumping out qualified candidates as fast as they can while also doing whatever they can to expand capacity, some manufacturing companies in Massachusetts are again able to offer attractive career opportunities to this next generation of workers.
Full Circle - Manufacturing Companies Are Again Reaching Out Directly to Students
Successful manufacturing companies in Massachusetts have adopted a wide variety of tactics meant to ensure they maintain a steady supply of qualified workers. One effective method appears to be having the company "adopt" a local school, making frequent campus visits and inviting interested students to come learn about the company in person, providing them with guided tours and an in-depth presentation of the company and its products. This process gives the potential future employee insight into exactly what would be involved should they decide to apply for a job after graduation. This level of direct involvement, often to the point of providing scholarships, internships, and other financial support, has proven phenomenally effective and is seen by many as the epitome of a win/win situation.
In many ways, this practice harkens back to a time when a company would select the best young candidates in the area and take them on as apprentices. Fortunately for today's manufacturing operations, these young people are clustered in classrooms, making it much easier to find and interact with them.
STEM Deserves Our Support
By whatever means we choose to support STEM-related education in Massachusetts, modern manufacturing companies are finding significant value in nurturing today's students in the clear hopes that they will come back later as valued employees. If we want to have a robust manufacturing sector in Massachusetts ever again, we all need to find a way to make STEM education a priority.
Our future relies on it.