Which career paths capture the imaginations of students trying to chart a course for their lives? The answers change over time. Kids who possibly dreamed of being a fireman or a police officer when they were young often broaden their options as they are exposed to more careers over time.
As students age, they find themselves and learn more about the talents and skills they naturally possess. These discoveries help to shape their thoughts about what types of careers they would excel in. However, are there industries out there that fail to attract students who might have a natural aptitude for the work they offer?
A new study suggests that this is indeed the case, especially when it comes to certain fields, such as advanced manufacturing. This represents a significant problem for manufacturers already struggling to fill open positions due to an ongoing skills gap. Perhaps the issue is less about aptitude and more about interest.
How can manufacturers attract the interest of today’s students? Does modern manufacturing need a makeover? In this article, we’ll take a look at how perceptions of manufacturing are changing and what more manufacturers can do to build a strong talent pipeline. We’ll also discuss the importance of career exploration and career and technical education (CTE) in shaping the career paths of today’s students.
A Mismatch Between Aptitude and Interest
For years now, manufacturers across the country have been struggling to fill hundreds of thousands of open positions. The supply of skilled workers simply isn’t great enough to keep up with demand, leading to an ongoing problem widely known as the “skills gap.”
But is the issue a lack of skills or a lack of interest in manufacturing? In reality, it’s probably a combination of the two. Advanced automation technologies used in manufacturing increasingly require workers with particular technical skills. However, a new study points out that lack of interest in manufacturing may be a bigger factor than previously realized.
According to an article in The Journal by Kristal Kuykendall, “U.S. students’ aptitudes far outweigh their interest in career clusters where significant job growth is forecast, revealing an exposure gap that will continue impacting the workforce as a skills gap unless schools can better help students find their ‘why’ and then draw connections to related career options.”
Her conclusion is based upon The State of The Future U.S. Workforce: Student Ability Report (the “Report”), recently released by YouScience, a student aptitude and career guidance platform. According to the Report, “students have the aptitudes, or talent, to excel in today’s in-demand jobs, but often lack interest in these fields, in some cases due to lack of knowledge about available careers.”
For example, the Report reveals that “[s]tudents have over 3x more aptitude than interest in advanced manufacturing careers.” There also appears to be a gender bias issue at play when it comes to advanced manufacturing: “[f]emale students have almost 10x more aptitude than interest in advanced manufacturing careers, while male students have about 2x more aptitude than interest.”
As YouScience CEO Edson Barton notes, the Report “tells us that what exists is less of a talent gap and more of an exposure gap, which results in a skills gap and a need to help students become more self-aware of their potential for in-demand careers.” According to Barton, “[s]tudents must be better aligned to and prepared for the future needs of our workforce. We know students have the talent, but they are not being adequately exposed to the career pathways wherein they possess natural skills and where they have the most potential to thrive.”
Misperceptions of Manufacturing Linger
Why do students with a clear set of skills that would make them successful in an advanced manufacturing career have so little interest in the field? It probably has a lot to do with the lingering effects of common misperceptions about manufacturing.
When you hear the word “manufacturing,” what comes to mind? For many, the first word or image that pops into the brain is “factory.” And what do you think of when you imagine a typical factory? Based upon popular stereotypes that have been around for ages, many students will think of hot, dirty factories with nothing to offer but boring, repetitive tasks.
Too often the word “manufacturing” seems to be synonymous with visions of assembly lines with bored workers who do the same uninteresting tasks on autopilot all day long. To be fair, such perceptions are not without some basis in fact, as the assembly lines and factories of decades ago gave rise to many of these perceptions modern manufacturers still face.
However, today’s reality could not be farther from those images that often come to mind. Modern manufacturing facilities tend to feature clean, welcoming environments due to the amount of advanced technology used in today’s manufacturing processes. Instead of dingy, dirty factories, students should be envisioning bright, clean workspaces filled with robots and automated guided vehicles.
Moreover, instead of boring, repetitive tasks, students should realize that today’s manufacturing facilities require more highly-skilled workers than ever before to operate, maintain, troubleshoot, and repair the wide variety of advanced automation technologies used. Unfortunately, too few students realize these things, leading to a lack of interest in a field that might hold their dream job.
Perceptions of Manufacturing are Changing
While it’s frustrating for manufacturers to continue to struggle against misperceptions of their industry, the good news is that a recent study suggests that may be changing. Deloitte has partnered with The Manufacturing Institute to complete a series of ongoing studies regarding the skills gap in manufacturing.
Their latest study has been summarized in a report titled Competing for Talent: Recasting Perceptions of Manufacturing, which notes that:
“Compared with our 2017 study, significantly more respondents believe that manufacturing jobs are innovative and more respondents are likely to encourage their child to pursue a career in the industry…Further, the pandemic has led to a new awareness of the critical nature of manufacturing in the United States and beyond.”
Despite the pandemic’s widespread negative impacts on manufacturing, it does appear that some awareness has been raised regarding the importance of manufacturing. For example, “[m]any manufacturing teams were designated essential workers, partly due to the role they played in producing ventilators and PPE and keeping supply chains open.”
The effect of the pandemic on perceptions of manufacturing is echoed by Matthew Kirchner in a recent Modern Machine Shop article:
“The rest of the world now knows what those of us in the manufacturing sector have known all along: the incredible importance of U.S. manufacturing to the overall economy. When consumers can get what they want, when they want it at a price that seems reasonable it’s quite easy for them to take manufacturing for granted. When their ability to do so is restrained by a dysfunctional supply chain, suddenly they begin to realize the incredible difference that manufacturing and a well-oiled supply chain make in their lives.”
Kirchner argues that the pandemic has given modern manufacturing a unique opportunity and urges everyone to not take manufacturing for granted, “but instead advocate for it, invest in it, and train and create a new generation of U.S. manufacturing talent.”
Strategies to Educate Students about Manufacturing Careers
What can educators and manufacturers do to change common misperceptions and encourage students to consider advanced manufacturing careers? Kuykendall notes in her article that the YouScience report contains several suggestions.
For example, the report advised “K–12 educators and administrators to ‘strengthen their investment in work-based learning initiatives’ by focusing on programs that ‘ensure all learners understand their aptitudes and matching career opportunities and engage in coursework and programs that build on these abilities and certifications.’”
To that end, the report “recommends schools take advantage of career and technical education certification programs to help students connect what they learn in school with real-world jobs.” The report also notes that “[s]chools need to embrace local industries and invite them into the student learning experience to expand students’ opportunities…Work-based learning and career-connected learning…along with apprenticeships and internships, help students see and find their place in industry.”
Likewise, Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute have identified four areas manufacturers need to address moving forward:
- Tackle misperceptions head-on: “Manufacturers are at an inflection point and can use the increased public awareness of the industry to emphasize manufacturing’s career opportunities and benefits, particularly to the public unfamiliar with the industry.”
- Educate students and parents: “The industry can amplify the increasingly high-tech nature of manufacturing as well as transferable skills and training.”
- Start at home: “Perception change starts at home, and local outreach continues to be effective in educating and attracting community members to manufacturing companies.”
- Recruit and keep employees: “Companies can step up their initiatives to engage new employees, involve existing employees to retain them, and evolve the work and workplace in response to customer needs.”
How Can Amatrol Training IGNITE Interest in Manufacturing?
Partnering with local industries to bolster work-based and career-connected CTE programs is a great way for manufacturers to work together with educators to bridge the skills gap. For many instructors and managers, this might seem like an impossible task. Where do you even start?
Fortunately, educators and manufacturers don’t need to recreate the wheel. There are expert consultants available to help assess your situation, take stock of your resources, examine your goals, and recommend a course of action that will take technical training programs to the next level.
With more than 30 years of experience designing and manufacturing state-of-the-art training systems, Amatrol remains the world’s leader in skills-based, interactive technical learning for industry and education. The experts at Amatrol can help you set up your own skills program focused on the areas where people need new or better skills.
For example, educators looking to provide their students with career exploration opportunities and more hands-on experience with modern manufacturing skills, Amatrol’s IGNITE: Mastering Manufacturing program is a foundational skill development program designed to stimulate student interest in today’s Advanced Manufacturing/Industry 4.0 careers.
Consult with an expert at Amatrol today to learn how you can take the first step toward teaching your students or current workers the skills that will set them up for success in the modern workplace.
About Duane Bolin
Duane Bolin is a former curriculum developer and education specialist. He is currently a Marketing Content Developer in the technical training solutions market.