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Manufacturing Deserves a Makeover

Our image of the manufacturing world is completely outdated.

The manufacturing industry has an image problem. Far from cool, many young adults view manufacturing jobs as dirty, unsafe, and mind-numbingly boring. If they don’t, parents and guidance counselors soon set them straight.

“We’ve spent the previous decades telling people that it’s a terrible career and it’s not something that you can spend your life doing, and that is wrong today,” said U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzger, at the Clinton Global Initiative conference in Denver this week. “Today’s manufacturing is not dark and dangerous,” she said. “It’s a really interesting career opportunity.”

Many people don’t understand that over the past ten years, the manufacturing industry has seen growth in both jobs and output, Pritzger told a panel moderated by former first daughter Chelsea Clinton. Since 2009, the industry has created 640,000 jobs. “We have a serious ambition to change the image of manufacturing in this country,” Pritzger said.

But few students are knocking on the manufacturing industry’s doors. When Siemens Corp. started an apprenticeship program in Charlotte to train young adults for advanced manufacturing jobs, the company went out to local high schools to recruit students in the top 25 percent of their classes.

“It was difficult. A lot of parents, high school administrators, and students really don’t understand advanced manufacturing today,” said Siemens USA President and CEO Eric Spiegel. “A lot of their image is what they’ve heard from their parents and grandparents: it’s a dirty job, it’s not safe, it’s low paying, it’s low skilled,” he told the panel.

That’s why some 1,500 manufacturers will throw open their doors in October for a Manufacturing Day, inviting students, parents, and high school counselors to see today’s advanced manufacturing facilities for themselves.

Students may be surprised to find clean, safe, high-tech workplaces, and jobs that help save lives and put humans on Mars. “Everything is run by computers, robots, and lasers,” said Spiegel.  “They find that this is really high skilled work and it’s just the beginning of my career.”

It’s not just the manufacturing industry that’s hurting. Youth unemployment is a growing issue, said former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the event. She introduced “Job One” – a new program to better connect young people with workforce training programs across the country.

cgia2014-job-one 640Courtesy of the Clinton Global Initiative

“One of the most terrifying statistics is that nearly six million young Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 are out of school and out of work,” said Clinton. “For those who don’t get a college education, or even high school, most doors just won’t open no matter how hard they knock.”

Yet, technical training in high schools has decreased dramatically in the last few decades, Spiegel told the panel. In 1980, the average young worker received 100 hours of training a year. By 2000 it was down to 10 hours a year. Today, less than half of all workers receive any formalized training. “That’s pathetic,” he said. “We need to fix that.”

Earlier this month, mid-market 3D Systems Corp. and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) took a step in that direction, announcing a “makeover” for technical vocational training through an initiative called M.Lab21. It puts 3D printers and curriculums into high school classrooms.

The initiative is the 21st century version of high school shop class, said Pritzger. “Creating things is really something that we’re good at in this country,” she said

The manufacturing industry is partly to blame for its own bad rap after moving factories abroad in the 1980s and laying off American workers. That’s why today, companies need to step up and do their part to make manufacturing cool again, Spiegel told the panel. “Companies have to take more responsibility for training,” he said. “If everyone stepped up, we could fill this gap.”

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