Opinion

Developing a Skilled Workforce

Gov. Deval Patrick recently disclosed plans to include $112 million in the state budget for the MASSGrant college-scholarship program. It was no surprise he chose to make the announcement during a visit with students at Springfield Technical Community College’s Smith & Wesson Technology Applications Center. The center teaches precision machining and other skills needed in modern manufacturing.

The governor has strongly stated his intention to support the state’s fifth-largest employment sector, manufacturing. As states struggle with limited budgets, he recognizes manufacturing education as an investment in long-term growth. And that is why the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) is especially pleased to return to West Springfield this May for EASTEC, the largest manufacturing event in the Northeast.

Manufacturing education is in crisis. While the national unemployment rate remains near 8% (Massachusetts was at 6.7% in December), as many as 600,000 manufacturing jobs have gone unfilled because of a shortage of skilled workers. The question for state government executives is how to replace retiring skilled workers with the next generation of workers who can operate and maintain sophisticated machinery designed to speed production times and cut costs.

Massachusetts is already taking many of the actions SME outlines in its Workforce Imperative: A Manufacturing Education Strategy, including:

• Partnering with business. The state’s Advanced Manufacturing Collaborative is an excellent example of how business, government, and educators can identify the skills that are needed, understand and update the curriculum, and engage students in real-world projects through design-build competitions and internships.

• Access to education. The governor signed into law last year reforms of the state’s community-college system. The goal is to make community colleges “more responsive to the needs of businesses and help fill the skills gap that can often leave employers with a shortage of well-trained job prospects.” We hope the reform will also include national accreditation for schools and skills certification for students.

• Supporting STEM. The SME education strategy calls for building a strong foundation for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Earlier this year, Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray announced the expansion of five programs across the state to prepare workers for careers in STEM fields. In addition to approximately $428,000 from the state’s STEM Pipeline Fund, the programs will leverage more than $1.3 million in matching funds from participating corporations, private foundations, and federal government sources.

A major challenge is to dispel the antiquated stereotypes students may have about manufacturing and STEM programs. A major focus of EASTEC will be a new “Dream It Do It” manufacturing student challenge. It gives students and educators the opportunity to see and experience the ‘wow’ factor in modern manufacturing — new, cutting-edge technologies that are transforming how we make things.

Massachusetts is leading the way on building a workforce prepared to tackle the challenges ahead of us. We hope other states will follow.

 

Mark C. Tomlinson, CMfgE, EMCP, is executive director and CEO of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME). SME, the organizer of EASTEC, is a leader in workforce-development issues in manufacturing, working with industry, academic, and government partners to support the current and future skilled workforce.

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