Manufacturing Jobs 2.0

Careers in manufacturing are a thing of the past, right?  

You’re not alone if you believe that the era of a robust U.S. manufacturing economy – and careers in the sector – are all but dead.  And why wouldn’t one think that were the case? 

News about the great recession, government bailouts of auto manufacturing giants General Motors and Chrysler, and on a more local level, devastating layoffs at large manufacturing firms such as Hutchinson Technology, paint a bleak picture.

But hold on just a minute: despite news stories that would make you think otherwise, the manufacturing industry in the U.S. is strong and growing. 

A recent article by Peter Zelinski, senior editor for Modern Machine Shop, sites statistics published by Financial Times indicating that unfilled manufacturing job openings have more than doubled since the beginning of 2009, rising from 98,000 to 230,000.  Further illustrating this growth, Joseph Bonney’ story for the Journal of Commerce Online references  the Institute for Supply Management’s monthly purchasing managers’ index, which has indicated growth in manufacturing activity for 23 consecutive months.

So what gives? National unemployment figures remain high, yet statistics indicate that hundreds of thousands of manufacturing job openings sit unfilled. 

Jobs in manufacturing most certainly have not gone by the wayside, however careers in the field do look quite different today than they did even a decade ago.  Growth in the industry has been spurred by increased productivity and the manufacturing of high-tech products, both made possible by technological advancements on the shop floor. So, what many Baby-boomers and Gen X’ers envision as a manufacturing job may indeed be history.  

In fact, it is the advancement of manufacturing technology that is causing the shortage of workers.  These unfilled manufacturing jobs require workers with advanced skills in modern manufacturing, such as knowledge of how to operate computer numerical controlled (CNC) lathes, mills, and brakes, or how to program logic controllers (PLC’s) that automate manufacturing processes and tasks completed by robots. To quote Zelinski in his article, “…the skills among jobseekers fall short of the skills that are truly in demand.”

Therein lies a tremendous opportunity. Ridgewater College and other community and technical colleges in Minnesota train students in machine tool technology, automation and robotics, and other modern manufacturing skills.  Our labs contain some of the most up-to-date technology found in industry, and the curriculum is kept up to date with current procedures. 

Many people still think of “machine tool” programs as teaching students the same tired manufacturing skills of twenty years ago, which is simply false.  Zelinski mentions that “…only one group truly [knows] what job skills are in demand…That group is employers themselves.”

We at Ridgewater agree, and that is why our instructors meet annually with an advisory committee made up of industry professionals.  The feedback from this group is used to modify equipment and technology, ensuring that our students are well-trained and ready for the workforce.

And the employers recognize the skills Ridgewater graduates have.  The campus career services office has compiled dozens of positions aimed at our Machine Tool and Automation and Robotics grads, just since the beginning of 2011.  So those job openings we discussed earlier, many of them are available locally. 

And these aren’t minimum wage jobs.  Many of the CNC Operator jobs I reviewed had starting wages in the $20 per hour range.  That’s a good start for someone with two years or less of post-secondary education!

What’s your perception of a machine tool or automation program?  What’s your definition of a manufacturing facility?  You may want to think twice, and consider the opportunities that lie ahead in this dynamic field.