Skills, Career Opportunity and Our Challenge: Let’s Close the Manufacturing Perception Gap
by Rob Luce, Vice President, SME Education Foundation
The mission of the SME Education Foundation is to inspire, prepare and support the next generation of manufacturing.
That mission is indeed our mandate: It’s the focus of our work every day. We’re not alone in the effort — we work and collaborate with educators and schools, industry partners and communities to promote and advance opportunity for high school students in engineering, manufacturing and STEM careers across the country. These partners, colleagues and advisors know firsthand of the opportunities and the urgent need to maintain and grow the country’s manufacturing and engineering position — and the rich employment opportunities that will drive that position going forward.
Industry knows that the current — and looming larger, the future — lack of skilled and prepared employees is severe. This skills gap could lead to a shortage of as many as 2.4 million manufacturing workers in the next decade.
Our challenge remains the same, and our education and industry partners share that challenge: How can we attract, interest — and then inspire young people to explore the opportunities being offered?
Over the last 40 years, the SME Education Foundation has mounted aggressive and successful programs and initiatives to address this need to engage and help the next generation of manufacturing talent.
Last year, we awarded 587 scholarships to young men and women studying in 41 states, totaling $1,647,000 in support.
The SME PRIME (Partnership Response In Manufacturing Education) builds cost-effective and tailored manufacturing/engineering programs in high schools across the country, providing equipment, curriculum, professional development, scholarships and STEM-focused extracurricular activities to students and teachers. SME PRIME students receive hands-on training on modern equipment and learn about technology and processes through industry-informed curriculum that is tailored to meet the needs of local manufacturers. Today, the SME PRIME footprint stands at 60 schools across 22 states.
The Foundation’s series of Student Summits introduce high school students to manufacturing technology at manufacturing events and trade shows around the country with engaging competitions, exposure to state-of-the-art technologies and dialogue with industry leaders. Last year alone, we brought more than 1,500 students from over 70 high schools in 11 U.S. states and one Canadian province to these events.
However, we, as an industry group, advocate and supporter, face a significant barrier: perception.
SME conducted a study in 2016 after conversations with parents that revealed that they do not see manufacturing as an exciting, challenging or engaging profession. Those findings were confirmed in 2018 by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, who concluded their study recognizing the gap that exists between “American people’s support of manufacturing and their interest in pursuing long term manufacturing careers.”
In an interview with “Bloomberg BusinessWeek” last year, I crystalized it: “Manufacturing is not a dark, dull, dying industry. It’s a lucrative industry if you have the right skill set.”
Perception: That IS our challenge. None of us can achieve our goal of supporting young people or advocating for industry if we aren’t inspiring and creating interest with or the opportunities for young people, their parents or their communities.