How Can Leaders Confront the Skills Gap in Manufacturing After COVID-19?

October 9, 2020 Peter Dorfman

In a 2018 Deloitte/Manufacturing Institute report, 89% of manufacturing CEOs cited a critical shortage of talent as their top concern. The study estimated that 4.6 million manufacturing jobs would need to be filled in the next decade—and 2.4 million jobs might go unfilled due to a lack of trained workers.

US manufacturing has taken a beating during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 486,000 job openings were available in manufacturing in June 2019. That number dropped to 306,000 by May 2020 but had recovered to 336,000 (a 10% rebound) by June. So overall demand is down, but assuming the pandemic’s impact on the US economy is not permanent, the skills gap in manufacturing will persist.

Ever since the Great Recession of 2007–2009 subsided, manufacturing executives have tried—and not quite succeeded—to staff up to handle resurgent demand. The gap is widely blamed on the shortage of STEM skills as manufacturing became increasingly technology-driven. Some of the most needed skills are in artificial intelligence, machine learning, software development, and cloud development. But the gap is not entirely digital. Conventional manufacturing skills (machining, assembly, quality management, process engineering, and the like) are in short supply, as well. Some of the problem is demographic.

skills gap in manufacturing dr. a. john hart MIT professor
Dr. A. John Hart, associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity at MIT, is one of the instructors of the Fundamentals of Manufacturing Processes and the Additive Manufacturing for Innovative Design and Production courses. Courtesy of M. Scott Brauer and MIT.

More manufacturing workers are retiring than are coming on board to replace them. Still, not everyone is convinced the skills gap in manufacturing is real. Some argue that there are plenty of skilled workers, but the gap arises from manufacturers’ unwillingness to pay them attractive salaries. Others have suggested that manufacturers are deepening the problem by constantly ratcheting up the training and experience requirements for new hires.

For Dr. A. John Hart, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor, the crux of the matter isn’t outsized expectations for new manufacturing employees; it’s the rate of change needed for skills throughout the course of a career. “We need to evolve a market in which the desire and ability to learn the new technologies is valued among employers—where workers recognize when the demand for their current skills is waning, and they have the opportunity to acquire new skills and confidently market themselves,” he says.

A Divergence of Skills

Hart says there is a need for more diverse institutional approaches and accessible offerings so workers can understand the future of their careers—and empower themselves to be competitive in a changing job market and in a technology-driven industry.

In addition to his work as a professor of mechanical engineering, Hart is director of the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity and the Center for Additive and Digital Advanced Production Technologies at MIT. He also created an online course to get professionals up to speed with industrial 3D printing.

Hart is all too familiar with the traditional ways of training manufacturing talent. “There is a divergence between the skills of today’s manufacturing workers and the skills required to operate, implement, and execute many of the cutting-edge manufacturing technologies—robotics, automation, 3D printing—and to harness the insights enabled by data science applied to manufacturing,” he says. “There is an increasing need for a practical curriculum that can fill the gap between vocational training, a two-year degree, and a four-year technical degree.”

New modes of training, credentialing, and learning that surpass the traditional degree are also needed, Hart says. Emphasis should be on continued learning, upskilling, and reskilling. This often requires support from the government in establishing training programs. These kinds of upskilling/reskilling programs also require support from manufacturers, “valuing the skills of its workers beyond their day-to-day jobs,” Hart says.

“You can take a great online course and ask questions, but without the hands-on experience, your skills are likely to fall short.”—Dr. A. John Hart

Certainly, many of the necessary new skills for manufacturing are digital skills. But Hart says the fact that engineers are consumers of machine-learning services doesn’t mean they also have to be data scientists. “They do have to understand what questions you can ask and what answers are credible and important,” he says.

Data science is a core competency in many companies, where, in some cases, they hire data scientists from other industries and team them with subject-matter experts to create tools for factory-floor analytics, rapid materials characterization, and similar tasks. But Hart says what’s important is the ability to collaborate with experts from other disciplines—not necessarily to master every relevant skill. 

Continuing Education

Hart’s 12-week advanced manufacturing course, Additive Manufacturing for Innovative Design and Production, is geared toward professionals. “It teaches the fundamentals and applications of 3D printing, tailored for engineers, managers, executives, and shop-floor people,” he says. “There are a lot of practicing professionals—from engineers right out of college to senior executives—who want to know about 3D printing and how to use it in their organizations. About 5,000 people have taken the course. Some of them recently took on new roles, and they want to push 3D printing in their organizations.”

Hart also teaches Fundamentals of Manufacturing Processes, a massively open online course (MOOC). The class is a broader introduction to manufacturing processes, an online rendition of the undergraduate manufacturing processes class he teaches at MIT. Over the past several years, thousands of people around the world have taken this more basic, entry-level course, with more than 400 so far earning an MITx certificate.

Yet, “a lot of these topics are intrinsically hands-on: programming a robot, conducting a mechanical test, and so on,” he says. “You can take a great online course and ask questions, but without the hands-on experience, your skills are likely to fall short. We, as a world, are discovering so much about what’s effective and what’s ineffective in digital learning from all our students needing to be remote during the pandemic. It’s not just about how you connect on video and chat. You have to be prepared to ship stuff to the students and engage them with cutting-edge software tools so they can have a powerful learning experience without needing to be on campus, in the shop.”

To enrich the online learning experience, one technique Hart has used is to ask the students to identify how manufacturing touches their surroundings. “We ask the students to look around their house: Find an object made by injection molding; find a part made by casting, a sheet-metal part,” Hart says. “If they can take it apart, take pictures of the assembly, calculate the forces needed, the result can be a more world-aware learning experience.”

skills gap in manufacturing guy on the computer
With the necessity of social distancing in 2020, educators are learning the extent to which remote learning can substitute for hands-on experience with modern manufacturing tools.

These are continuing-education courses. Completion doesn’t result in a degree from MIT, but it does come with a branded certificate. “The MIT name on the certificate helps,” Hart says. “I’m proud of it and want to live up to the reputation.”

Hart sees a role for many kinds of institutions in solving the upskilling problem. “I hope in the future there is more collaboration between educational institutions of different sizes and in different places,” he says. “The community-college system has a great part to play in addressing manufacturing skills gaps and growing the workforce of the future.”

The Global View

The skills gap in manufacturing is not unique to the United States, and Hart takes a global view. “Someone in Germany or China or Brazil might express the problem differently,” he says. “In China, for instance, I’ve been told that there is a shortage of talent for programming high-end computerized milling machines that make really complex parts in the aircraft industry, for example—making parts that are lightweight and have complex geometries.”

It’s essential to see the global picture, Hart says, as additive manufacturing pushes industries toward digital manufacturing. He adds that manufacturing is cost-effective to outsource overseas. “But these are not just low-wage markets,” he says. “Many countries have built the ecosystem, the supply chains, the talent, and the flexibility of the talent, as well as the machine shops to be able to scale up quickly and establish firsthand expertise.”

MIT has summer bootcamps on topics such as 3D printing—typically one-week courses held in person on campus. The university was unable to hold them in 2020, but Hart hopes to resume the schedule next summer. They’re short but intensive and have advantages—especially for networking.

“As MIT’s motto says, ‘the mind and hand’—we merge the practical, hands-on experience with the theory and analysis,” Hart says. “The best engineers and innovators in manufacturing know how to grasp the key technical principles to solve important problems and create technologies and businesses that will sustainably advance our world.”

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