Creating the Manufacturing University: More Thoughts

I was glad to see Rob Atkinson at ITIF highlight the relationship between our declining role in worldwide manufacturing and our education system in his post Creating the Manufacturing University.

While lethargic jobs growth and loss of manufacturing overseas will always attract attention, they belie a seemingly great paradox: there are, today, over a half million open, US manufacturing jobs that companies can’t find qualified workers to fill. But when you read stories with quotes from hiring managers, its not such a mystery: there’s a big gap between the potential workers our education system is producing and the requirements of today’s US manufacturers.

Part of this gap is coming from the changing nature of US manufacturing. We should hope that our economy never gets to the point where we are a leader in cheap labor. Instead, the stories of companies who have chosen to manufacture here tell the tale of smart machines coupled with smart, agile workers. You manufacture here when you want a tight coupling of designers to people building the product, high quality, agility to adapt to customer demand, and a cost that’s reasonable.

Filling these jobs doesn’t require just any motivated individual, but one with some STEM training, and ability to work in a team and thrive in a highly dynamic environment. This segues back into our education system, and Rob’s proposal for a series of US Manufacturing Universities, based on federal grants, and with a focus on innovation and churning out US manufacturing PhD’s.

This proposal was a total surprise to me, as I was expecting him to go in a different direction. The open jobs aren’t for half a million PhD candidates. They’re looking for folks like I described above: some might have a 4-year college degree, others an associate degree, and others might have augmented their high school education with some job-specific training. And when I think of the programs we need to replicate and support through policy and funding, I think of Dan Swinney’s amazing work at Austin Polytech (High School) in Chicago, the job-ready training provided by on-line universities and community colleges across the country, and the upgrades to our K-12 system that are required to fill these programs and many more like them.

But I’ve learned over time not to discount Rob’s perspective too easily, and I think I’m seeing where he’s trying to go. At some point a good fraction of our population in this country (I’ll call them the “professional class”) disconnected from our manufacturing system. I suspect that it first started with a product disconnect a few decades ago (“These Detroit cars are crap”), and once we emotionally got over that, it wasn’t so traumatic to see the work go elsewhere as well. We got comfortable buying cars, appliances, TVs and stereos with unusual names, and don’t blink an eye today when our most iconic, American-design products have zero percent of content made in the US.

But to regain momentum in manufacturing, we need a full ecosystem, from shop workers up to world-class research and design, and that requires getting our professional class to re-engage. We need our entire education system, from K-12 through university presidents and high profile STEM professors, making manufacturing a priority, and working with the private sector to push forward on a common path.

Having understood this I’d go a step farther, and suggest that not only are we missing a generation of manufacturing researchers, but we’re also missing a generation (or two) of manufacturing-savvy business executives. We need to reintroduce operations management into our MBA programs and stop treating manufacturing like a cost center. If we have to spend a little time on Black-Scholes, I think that will be OK.

Relaunching a whole bottom-to-top manufacturing ecosystem sounds like a pretty audacious goal, but we have key elements in place already: motivated job-seekers, market pull from industry (including a new wave of US product startups) and market pressure in education. Hopefully these can combine with some well-placed, thoughtful nudges from government and grow the flicker of renewed US manufacturing.