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Training & Education

Technical training: It’s time to commit

By Udo O.J. Huff, M.ED.

January 2014 - Where are we as a nation when it comes to structured technical training for industry’s future needs? Are we still where we were in the 1990s or do we have a reliable technical educational infrastructure that industry can access? The answer: not yet.

Struggles with developing, and subsequently funding, technical skills training in the U.S. is not a new phenomenon. The conundrum goes back to post-Civil War times. For example, in 1869 a Massachusetts survey revealed just 27 employers used apprentices in their businesses, because the practice was found to be unprofitable. That’s not much different from today, when budget cutbacks usually target training programs.

Regardless of short-term costs, employers today need to consider the long-term benefits of technical skills training. The latest national unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show a 2 percent drop from 2011 to 2012, to 7.3 percent for men, and a 3 percent drop to 7.4 percent in the same time period for women, in the metals and fabricated metal products industries. This points to increased demand for structured technical training. That said, there exists an imbalance—certain trade skills are very difficult to find in the pool of potential employees. The imbalance becomes evident when looking forward. Here are a few examples:

 Professional trades such as advanced design engineering and CNC automation programming for manufacturing cells are just two career paths where a skilled workforce is already lacking.

 Welders and welding engineers with skills and experience in stainless steel and aluminum welding are needed in automotive and other industries that use advanced materials for innovative products.

 Innovative fuel cell technology, hybrid or electric-powered cars continue to enter the marketplace. Specialized skills are needed not just for their production, but also for maintenance and repairs. The archetypal small car repair shop around the corner will reach its capacity to serve customers within the next five to 10 years.

 And what of innovative materials for vehicle bodies? Body shop employees will have to adapt to such new materials. How soon will this happen and are we preparing to tackle those future technical changes for such innovative products on the market?

Being professionally active internationally in manufacturing engineering and technical trades training, I have come across similar situations studying the development of technical training of different industrial nations, in particular, the United States.

There are obstacles, to be sure. We hear a lot of buzz about our aging skilled workforce, that the next generation does not want to get their hands dirty, and that we train an employee only to have him or her leave to accept a job offer for $1 more an hour. That said, these obstacles are not insurmountable. It will take a drastic change to create the skilled workforce needed for today’s fast-paced, modern industry and innovative technologies coming up in much faster fashion than in the past. A few examples of fresh efforts to create technical training opportunities include:

Tapping a motivated workforce: Workshops for Warriors—the San Diego-based nonprofit trains, certifies and places veterans in manufacturing careers, taking advantage of an already highly skilled, well-trained group of men and women actively seeking employment upon their return to civilian life after military service. 

Introducing manufacturing as an exciting career path: Ohio’s Straight A Fund announced a $12.5 million grant to establish a new high school aimed specifically at manufacturing and STEM-related career paths. According to the Columbus Dispatch, “The school, set to open next fall … will provide students with two ‘pathways to college’: manufacturing, including robotics and pre-engineering, and information technology.”

Government and industry partnering to provide more training opportunities: The Northern Illinois Workforce Alliance is working in partnership with the city of Rockford, Ill., thanks in part to a $1.2 million grant to provide manufacturing training for area employers.

To change our technical educational infrastructure, we need to break with the past, with a strong focus on creating various technical career paths that allow for career advancement. Today, more than ever, the U.S. needs a strong industry lobby investing in think tank-like technology centers, with the intention to create such needed innovation in training and development, along with a strong emphasis on training the trainer for long lasting support. FFJ

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