Around 2008, the U.S. manufacturing sector crossed an important rubicon – the percentage of its workforce with a college degree or some post-high school education exceeded the percentage with only a high school diploma or less. When these high-skill workers became the majority, manufacturing had undeniably evolved – hence, the rise of the term ‘advanced manufacturing.’ Unfortunately, our education/workforce system has not evolved along with industry demands - hence Conexus' critical work in this arena.
Millions of Americans are looking for work, and thousands of U.S. manufacturers are looking for workers.
The numbers are startling. While unemployment and underemployment remain stuck near 20 percent, more than 600,000 good manufacturing jobs have gone unfilled, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. While personal income has stagnated, these jobs pay wages much higher than the national average.
Where's the disconnect?
There's a simple answer to a complex problem: The majority of manufacturing jobs now require education beyond high school, and our workforce doesn't make the grade.
As manufacturers have raced to be more productive and innovative over the last several decades, they've demanded more out of their workers -- the skills to operate advanced computerized equipment and robotic systems, teamwork and troubleshooting capabilities.
The manufacturing workforce got smarter, but it also got older. Back in 1980, 70 percent of the nation's manufacturing workers were younger than 45. Today, half the workers are older than 45, and the percentage age 25 to 34 has dropped by more than a third.
As the baby boomer generation retires, jobs open up. But young workers are ill-prepared to step into the shoes of their parents and grandparents. According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. is the only industrialized country where educational attainment among those just entering the labor market (25 to 34 year olds) is less than those about to leave the labor market (55 to 64 year olds).
Even in Indiana, the most manufacturing-intensive state in the nation, we haven't changed our academic approach since the rise of the assembly line. Post-high school training will be mandatory for 60 percent of all new jobs in manufacturing and logistics over the next decade, but we remain stuck in a bygone era when a basic high school diploma was sufficient to earn long-term employment at the local factory.
Conexus Indiana represents companies in the automotive industry, aerospace and defense firms, logistics businesses -- a wide spectrum of high-tech manufacturing and supply chain fields. We convene groups of them regularly to discuss critical business issues. The consistent message is that they all need skilled workers, but that despite high unemployment, the right kind of labor is scarce.
That's why we act as a bridge between private industry and higher education partners such as Ivy Tech, Vincennes University and Harrison College to ensure that quality post-secondary programs are available to prepare young Hoosiers for these challenging (and high-paying) careers. But we must do more, catching the next generation of manufacturing and logistics workers even earlier -- in high school.
It's clear that students begin seriously thinking about their career choices while still in school. Research by the ACT confirms that high schoolers who were fairly certain about their occupational choices by their junior/senior years are more likely to succeed in college and ultimately earn positions in their chosen field.
Conexus is now working with Indiana employers and the state Department of Education to develop an advanced manufacturing and logistics (AML) high school-level curriculum, a mixture of online and hands-on courses that will expose students to these industries and give them a solid foundation of knowledge to carry on after they earn their diplomas.
The AML curriculum was created in alignment with state standards and with broad-based feedback from industry, ensuring that it carries real value for students. It has been endorsed and is eagerly anticipated by school superintendents and technical education directors across the state who see the need to prepare their students to participate in a sector that today employs one of every four Hoosiers.
Conexus is completing private fundraising to finalize the curriculum and provide it to school districts at no additional cost. The private sector has embraced the opportunity to invest in this effort, a concrete demonstration of the demand that exists for a revitalized workforce pipeline. For too long, employers have been disengaged from the educational system; now, companies are realizing that they must push for relevant programs, work with local schools and put money into training efforts to develop the human capital they need.
Without qualified employees, advanced manufacturing and logistics companies can't grow; without good job opportunities, young people can't become productive taxpayers. The process of closing our skills gap will begin in classrooms and technical education centers across Indiana -- and it has to start now. It's up to us to make sure local high schools have the tools to engage and educate our future workforce.
Dwyer is president and CEO of Conexus Indiana, the state's industry-led manufacturing and logistics initiative; he formerly served as chief operating officer of Rolls-Royce North America.