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Connecting Hands and Heads: Retooling Engineering Technology for the “Smart” Manufacturing Workplace
Fran Stewart and Kathryn Kelley
Published in the February 2020 issue of Economic Development Quarterly
Click here for the full article
Technological change, global competition, and a protracted economic downturn combined to usher in and hasten a new era in manufacturing. The digitally integrated factory, where machines are computer controlled, production is digitally connected to suppliers and customers, and all aspects of operation are constantly monitored and analyzed, requires workers with a new and emerging array of skills. This study analyzes data on occupational skill requirements and employment projections and combines it with insights gleaned from a series of focus groups and follow-on interviews with manufacturers across Ohio to explore current and projected workforce challenges faced by manufacturers. One key finding that emerges from the data and focus group responses is a broader understanding of the considerable engineering and technology skills associated with several occupations critical to manufacturing operations.
The looming need for workers who can keep automated systems operating, anticipate potential production problems, and reconfigure machines to accommodate new processes suggests the importance of a more systemized and integrated approach to educating and training the "smart" manufacturing workforce. An earlier work by Fran Stewart, PhD, lead author, outlines the unclear economic models that can result when education and policy converge over STEM skills training. Over the past few years, state and local policymakers and workforce development agencies have begun responding to the concerns of area manufacturers. A number of Ohio manufacturers, for example, have rightfully taken steps to address identified workforce challenges by reaching out to local vocational schools and community colleges to develop training programs. However, important partners in building the manufacturing workforce of the future have been largely left out of the process: universities.
OMI argues an expanded role for universities in preparing and retraining the next-generation workforce. Data analysis and discussions with manufacturers across the state reveal a critical need for a set of application-based engineering technology degrees that connect hands and heads in the digitized, integrated manufacturing environment. Developing engineering technology or applied engineering educational programs with multiple on and off ramps will facilitate the growing need for business-oriented engineering leaders to run the factories of tomorrow. In addition, universities are critical to expanding the state’s skill development capacity by serving to “train the trainer.”
Ohio already has existing infrastructure for addressing the changing workforce needs of the state’s manufacturing industry. The increasingly digitized and integrated plant floor has enabled greater productivity, better connectivity, and integration of workforce development and educational programs. However, revamped policies to speed curricula and programmatic changes based on industry needs will allow the manufacturing workforce needed to compete and thrive.
To view earlier white paper, click here.