Developing career pathways and providing real-world learning experiences are critical to filling the advanced manufacturing skills gap

Scaling workforce readiness through manufacturing expertise

Developing career pathways and providing real-world learning experiences are critical to filling the advanced manufacturing skills gap

The COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected US employment, with significant impact to the manufacturing sector. According to Deloitte’s recent “2021 manufacturing outlook,” US manufacturing faces a long recovery to match its post-2008 recession momentum. And, as we recover, manufacturing may never look the same, with companies adapting to hybrid work environments and expecting more agility from the workforce.

Pre-pandemic, US manufacturers were already challenged by the rapid pace of innovation, needing to constantly upskill and reskill for new and emerging 21st century jobs, and a well-documented overall shortage of prepared workers. While we can all agree that today’s manufacturing workforce is challenged, what can be done that will have the greatest positive impact?

The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) Manufacturing Technology (ManTech) Program in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering went to work on the problem. With Department of Defense Manufacturing Innovation Institutes (DoD MIIs) already established and active, and given that part of their mission is to accelerate the growth of the next generation workforce, it was a natural fit to develop a national strategy with local implementation driven by six of the DoD manufacturing institutes.

While each of the institutes may approach workforce needs differently, some at K-12, some at the post-secondary education level, others with the incumbent workforce or a blend of multiple audiences, all are raising awareness and building skills for the next generation manufacturing sector.

ManTech authorized a $2M program through a Special Call to create impactful local workforce development programs that prepare the workforce for careers in emerging technologies that align to the technology focus of the DoD MIIs. Institutes were encouraged to develop solutions that either deliver a geographically focused jumpstart program, and/or create digital learning content that helps students see their future in the advanced manufacturing workforce.

Tracy Frost, Director of the OSD ManTech Program, said, “We are delighted to actively provide stewardship for these important workforce development programs. We know we’re having an impact when we see demand for these programs growing year over year.”

These six institutes aim to give kids the knowledge they need to consider education and career pathways to enter the agile advanced manufacturing workforce. Closing the manufacturing skills gap is of paramount importance to the economic security of our nation.

Under this ManTech grant, institutes have the freedom to develop programs that best fits the needs of their technology focus and the local ecosystems, based on experiences they have gained in designing and delivering workforce development programs. Since their inception, each institute has responded to the needs of their ecosystem–manufacturers, schools, universities and colleges, and economic development groups–and established powerful relationships to guide decisions about what works best. The ManTech Special Call leverages the MIIs’ flexible and agile organizational model to catalyze workforce training opportunities that will contribute to US manufacturing sector leadership.

In response, the participating institutes have proposed the following solutions:

Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), Cambridge, MA

Advanced fiber and fabric technology

Geographic focus: Ten textile-centric counties in western North Carolina

AFFOA’s geographic focus is in ten textile-centric counties in western North Carolina. Given their legacy of textile manufacturing and employment, as well as having strong textile training and education programs at community colleges in the area, best practices will be developed to share with other regions in the state. AFFOA will work collaboratively with partners to: 1) establish a statewide task force on textile workforce development; 2) conduct a gap analysis and asset mapping process; 3) create a textile education pathway model to include K-12, community colleges, and universities outlining current and emerging stackable/badge credentials that can be attained through credit and non-credit offerings. These partner relationships will ensure alignment in workforce development and will forge a standing statewide task force that advocates for workforce needs at the state level.

AIM Photonics

AIM Photonics Academy, Cambridge, MA

Integrated photonics – processing at the speed of light

Geographic focus: Eastern Massachusetts

AIM Photonics Academy is focusing its program on high schools across eastern Massachusetts by gamifying learning about integrated photonics. In collaboration with eight high schools, AIM Photonics Academy will design and implement an innovative, highly scalable, after-school game-based alternate reality learning experience to introduce young people to advanced manufacturing STEM concepts and career opportunities. Additionally, an online course will introduce device components from AIM’s circuit design library. Each module will contain video lectures and a design challenge and will introduce students from college to engineers in the workforce to the exciting field of integrated photonics.

ARM Institute, Pittsburgh, PA

Advanced robots for manufacturing

Geographic focus: National

ARM’s national program will develop a proof of concept to best determine how virtual reality can be used to assess technician skills when using robots in manufacturing. Current and future manufacturing employees can utilize performance-based assessments that test their robotics and automation knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) to earn an Industry 4.0 Robotics Career credential. Providing a testing mechanism to validate competency achievement in current and future manufacturing employees will shorten the time to productivity and expand career path opportunities for all employees.

LIFT, Detroit, MI

Lightweight materials for agile and smart manufacturing

Geographic focus: Flint, MI

LIFT’s program will focus on Flint, Michigan and will design innovative talent development models, with emphasis on career pathway mapping and virtual externships that will drive the adoption of smart manufacturing technologies, processes, and systems throughout the region. The program maps education pathways to careers in smart manufacturing: Digital Twin, Advanced Analytics, and Robotics, and will provide work-based learning experiences. The digital curriculum will be made available on the Open edX platform.

MxD, Chicago, IL

Manufacturing Times Digital: Factory of the future

Geographic focus: The 94 Corridor

Interstate 94, and, specifically, the portion that runs from Chicago to Milwaukee, faces challenges with a geographically fragmented and aging workforce. Despite this region’s global significance as a manufacturing sector, an improved workforce infrastructure is needed, especially for small and mid-sized manufacturers to succeed in the digital paradigm. To facilitate innovation in what is described as the “world’s freshwater hub,” through a series of one-day workshops MxD will engage leaders of the regional water economy to identify digital and cyber water workforce needs and opportunities. New regional partnerships will be leveraged for further workforce development efforts, linking the water industry to MxD resources in digital manufacturing and cybersecurity.

NextFlex, San Jose, CA

Next generation electronics: thin, conformable, and flexible

Geographic focus: Silicon Valley

The NextFlex program will focus on Silicon Valley and will connect a range of partners including K-12, higher education, and industry, to create a diverse, robust, and technically agile workforce needed to drive the development and commercialization of Flexible Hybrid Electronics (FHE) technology. NextFlex’s digital learning content will develop critical knowledge, skills, and abilities needed by the emerging and incumbent technical workforce for the design and manufacture of FHE-enabled devices. The programs will accelerate the pace of FHE innovation throughout the ecosystem by building awareness around the potential of FHE to transform electronics products and simultaneously creating the digital learning content that will give engineers the skills they need to maximize use of the technology.

Each of the above manufacturing innovation institutes was established through a rigorous proposal process that thoroughly vetted each technology area and garnered support from industry and academia. The technologies represented by each of the MIIs are critical investment areas for both the Department of Defense and the commercial sector, in an effort to secure US-based, sustainable manufacturing ecosystems, including a thriving supply chain. These investments are only relevant if the future workforce is skilled and available at the right time: as these technologies are developed and move toward commercialization. The learning programs outlined here are models for success – built for digital delivery – creating pathways to enable the young as well as the incumbent workforce to join us as we move to the future of advanced manufacturing. Leveraging the collective learning of each of these institutes creates an opportunity for exponential growth of tomorrow’s workers.

Developing career pathways and providing real-world learning experiences are critical to filling the advanced manufacturing skills gap and ensuring the future workforce has the knowledge, skills, and abilities to succeed at working with ever-smarter manufacturing technologies. Stakeholders across the country are already engaged with each of the institutes, and so, by working in tandem with the support of the DoD, our results are amplified.

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Laura Ascione

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