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Why Aren't Colleges and Universities Preparing the Workforce of Tomorrow?

Too few jobs, yet too few workers: Engineering colleges are overlooking an opportunity.
University Business, Apr 2005

Manufacturing workforce reductions and outsourcing of manufacturing operations overseas have reportedly cost 2.7 million American workers their jobs in the last four years. Yet, many manufacturing jobs lie unfilled for months as companies seek workers with the skills they need for these jobs. So, how can we have too few jobs for our workers and too few workers for our jobs--at the same time?

The answer lies in a lack of the proper skills--the skills that would qualify available workers for available jobs. U.S. firms have proven they can compete with lower wage producers using the productivity gains that advanced information systems and automation technology afford. These measures combined with competency in processing new materials and added value services defy the logic that we should abandon the production sector of our economy. However, the goods producing sector needs to equip itself with new skills, not just new machinery. In part, the fault lies with engineering college and technical schools that are not preparing young men and women for the jobs that will be open to them. In part, it is the fault of the workers--young and old alike--for not ensuring that they have the type of knowledge and hands-on technical skills required in today's high-tech, high-precision, high-quality manufacturing operations.

Engineering colleges continue to prepare graduates for jobs that often do not exist, without a proper appreciation for positions that do exist and indeed what jobs their graduates will take. But, this isn't just about greater concern for the job skills of our graduates. It is also about missed opportunities for additional revenue streams.

Community colleges to internationally recognized universities should be designing curricula that will simultaneously meet the knowledge needs of today's students and the requirements of today's employers. Many educators fail to fully appreciate that 90 percent of their graduates will take jobs in what may be considered manufacturing. And, because they don't realize this, they are not adapting their curricula to provide their students with the knowledge they need to fill real-world open positions.

What are those missing skills? The Society of Manufacturing Engineers, through its Education Foundation, has identified the following competency gaps in recently hired engineering graduates:

Project management and team-building

Clear, persuasive verbal and written communication

Attentive listening and goal setting

Supply-chain management and vendor logistics

Process and discrete manufacturing

Knowledge of, and appreciation for, foreign cultures, languages, and business practices

Since 1998, SME has awarded more than 30 grants of almost $15.5 million to academic institutions for the development of new manufacturing degrees, improved educational programs, education/industry collaborations, and more.

The Foundation-supported Partnership for Regional Innovation in Manufacturing (PRIME), for example, is an industry-driven, five-college system delivering innovative manufacturing education and career development in Southwest Pennsylvania. PRIME is helping turn the area into a thriving economic region with diverse industries in materials processes and technology. It has linked K-12 and certificate and apprenticeship programs to a region-wide articulated system of higher education.

Farmingdale State University (N.Y.) has an outreach program to introduce K-12 students to manufacturing and attract students to its manufacturing engineering program. Rochester Institute of Technology (N.Y.) responded to a consortium of companies that wanted to help fund an optoelectronics lab and now offers a certificate program in conjunction with Corning Community College (N.Y.) and George Brown College (Ontario). The University of Texas at El Paso is developing a manufacturing-focused MBA program with the Monterrey Institute in Mexico. These are a few examples of IHEs that are responding to the need for manufacturing education--and attracting new funding and new students in the process.

Worker skills and education will be decisive factors in America's ability to compete in the global manufacturing environment. If colleges and universities don't step up to the plate, they will be the losers, along with the manufacturing base, the economy, and the citizens of the United States.

Saul Fenster is president emeritus of the New Jersey Institute of Technology and director and immediate past president of SME Education Foundation.

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