Closing the manufacturing skills gap

manufacturing worker in shop
Manufacturing companies are reporting a need for more skilled workers. Skagit Valley College (SVC) is taking note and redesigning its manufacturing technology program to address those concerns. Photo: Pxhere

Washington-based manufacturing business have a problem: they are short on skilled workers that can quickly adapt to ever-changing machinery and technology. Skagit Valley College (SVC) has recognized this and is updating its manufacturing technology program to better fit the needs of businesses in the local area.

The program is increasing its focus on mathematics, computer skills and new technologies to better prepare students for what the industry requires.

A recent Washington Research Council (WRC) report states that although several sectors are reporting skills gaps, the shortage within the manufacturing sector should be of statewide concern because of the importance of the industry on the state’s economy.  Best practices for addressing the gap include having discussions with local community colleges and manufacturing companies to determine how to better prepare students for today’s industry needs.

Manufacturing jobs pay more than the state’s other industries, according to the report, with the industry paying $74,632 on average compared to $59,090 across all sectors including manufacturing. Also, an estimated 296,272 people were employed with manufacturing jobs in 2016.

Bruce Pool, Department Chair for the school’s manufacturing technology program, told Lens the program has been evolving and reacting to industry changes.

Pool taught the department’s first class in 2011. During early talks, before the program’s launch, local businesses weighed in on the minimum requirements needed for an entry-level manufacturing job and then SVC designed the curriculum around what those companies needed.

In the program, the students take classes on composite construction and repair and quality assurance, which companies have identified as being important for new employees. The college has worked with other schools to develop transfer degrees and currently, the manufacturing program offers two-year degrees and certificates.

The college has an advisory committee made up of members from businesses in the local area. That body meets twice a year to discuss what those companies want, receive feedback on what has worked well and identify what the current and future needs are for the industry.

“The idea is that students coming out of the program have the skills that the companies are looking for and then they can come in running a little bit,” Pool said.

SVC’s program teaches students the skills they need while working directly on the manufacturing floor and for manufacturing operations.

“What is needed is to start looking at jobs in the industry…the educational levels need to increase over time…the skills that are needed are changing, so that’s something we have to try and keep on top of,” said Pool.

The technology on manufacturing floors is constantly evolving. Students and potential workers need to be able to adapt and brought up to speed to meet employer needs and make themselves more marketable for employment.

“They need people coming in that can hit the ground running faster than maybe they normally would,” Pool said. Anecdotally, about 80 percent of students in the program graduate with a certificate or degree and find employment within six months.

“In this environment today with the lack of skilled workers in this area, if students successfully complete the program and don’t have job offers then they are being very selective or are not pursuing jobs in manufacturing,” said Pool.

Barry Hendrix is an adjunct instructor in the program and has a spot on the advisory board. He is also Vice President of Operations for ShuttleSystem LLC, a small manufacturing company based in Mason, Ohio with a production facility in Skagit Valley that makes furniture for schools, colleges and universities.

Hendrix said the program focuses on teaching students computer skills and math because those are the areas that local businesses say are most lacking in new manufacturing workers. Also important are soft skills such as understanding what it means to work in a company and practicing good work ethic.

“What sets our students apart is the quality assurance part of the program which includes manufacturing principles and quality control training. A lot of people will go to a machining school and learn how to become a machinist, but they won’t have the full understanding of the process and the inspection portion of it,” he said.

Hendrix said different companies have different needs, and the program is not large enough to supply all the training required, but the college is looking at what is most needed and then will expand as needed.

“We’ve added more math classes to the program…businesses have told us they’d like students to have more understanding of materials and the science of different metals used in different industries…so we will add that to the program.”

Starting last year, SVC began revamping the program to focus more on math and the college is now ramping up to include new curriculum slated for the 2019-2020 school year.

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