Educational System Limiting United States Manufacturing

  • March 16, 2013
  • Feature

By Bill Lydon, Editor Manufacturing automation has been doing the heavy lifting to improve productivity in the United States while the country’s educational systems continue to have disturbingly low productivity. After talking with management of many manufacturing companies, reviewing surveys and statistics, it is obvious to me that this situation is dramatically out of control.   The educational system in the United States is just not getting the job done. And this is a major constraint on finding people suitable for basic manufacturing jobs let alone people to work with the technology required for manufacturing to be competitive on world markets. Further, this is a severe limitation hampering United States companies from designing leadership automation systems and creating machines. Recent information illustrates that the U.S. education system cannot turn money alone into positive results - with billions of dollars pumped into education over 40 years. The "No Child Left Behind" initiatives are a decade old. An investment of over $80 billion in federal stimulus since 2009 that was intended to lift student performance quickly has resulted in no significant gain. The September 12, 2012 study, "Throwing Money at Education Isn't Working," was conducted on data from all 50 states by SBS analyst Kristen De Peña.  The study was part of an ongoing state and municipal fiscal crisis project by Sunshine Review. The study concluded that money is not the answer and shows that states spending the most do not have the highest average ACT test scores, nor do they have the highest average graduation rates. Each year, the United State spends billions of dollars on education. In 2010, total annual spending on education exceeded $809 billion dollars which is higher than any other industrialized nation, and more than the spending of France, Germany, Japan, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia combined. From 1970 to 2012, total average per pupil expenditures in the U.S. has more than doubled. Despite higher levels of funding, student test scores are substantially lower in the United States than in many other nations. Manufacturing The Manufacturing Institute report, “Boiling point - The skills gap in U.S. manufacturing,” says that seventy-four percent of respondents indicated workforce shortages or skills deficiencies are having a significant impact on manufacturers’ ability to expand operations or improve productivity. These jobs require the most training, and are traditionally among the hardest manufacturing jobs to fill with existing talent. Survey respondents punctuated the most serious skills deficiencies with existing employees.

  • Inadequate problem-solving skills - 52%
  • Lack of basic technical training (degree, industry certification or vocational training) - 43%
  • Inadequate basic employability skills (attendance timeliness, work ethic, etc.) - 40%
  • Inadequate technology/computer skills - 36%
  • Inadequate math skills - 30%
  • Inadequate reading/writing/communicating skills - 29%

Voice of Employers I had the pleasure of moderating the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) CEO Round Table discussion at AUTOMATE in Chicago on 22 January 2013. A major topic at the roundtable was the lack of skilled people and the need for better education with some pointed remarks by owners of manufacturing companies. These are comments from participants in the roundtable related to education.

Drew Greenblatt, President & Owner, Marlin Steel, USA ( Marlin Steel manufactures material handling and cleaning baskets, sheet metal fabrications, wire forms, and machined products for aerospace, automotive, medical, pharmaceutical, industrial, and military applications.

“Manufacturing pays really well with an average of $72,000 a year plus benefits. If you are a barista at a coffee place or a burger flipper you are not going to make nearly that money or benefits,” said Greenblatt. “We’re not getting what we are paying for - America pays more per capita per student than any other country. We aren’t getting our value - we’re getting the short end of the deal. It is unacceptable!” Greenblatt suggested, “If you really want to understand the situation you should see the movie, “Waiting for Superman.” “It is dispiriting what’s going on with our system…we have high school graduates that don’t know how to read a tape measure, can’t do basic math, don’t know how to do simple geometry,” said Greenblatt.  “They don’t know what a radius is, what a diameter is…but they have a high school degree. It is unacceptable, we should be furious because we are paying big bucks and not getting the quality.” “I am on the executive board of the National Association of Manufacturers and they are starting a national program called Skills Certification,” said Greenblatt.  “It is a national certification and if you pass the test it is a portable certificate that shows you have the basic competence to work in a factory. I think that will improve the stock of our employees...right now the diploma from a high school is not worth the paper it’s printed on.”    “The robotic programs popping up in high schools in our area are fantastic and we love nothing more than walking those kids though our facility and every time they are blown away,” said Greenblatt. “They are amazed by the factory being clean and bright and are fascinated by the technology.” Editor’s note: Greenblatt noted the misconceptions about manufacturing were alarming. “The next level to me is bringing their moms through the facility so they understand that today’s manufacturing is not their grandfather’s manufacturing,” said Greenblatt.

Matt Tyler, President & CEO, Vickers Engineering, USA ( Vickers is a precision machining and fabrication company serving the automotive, oil & gas, agriculture, defense, and industrial markets.

Matt Tyler stated their biggest concern for growing from 170 employees at $30 million in sales to $63 million in sales in 2016 is finding skilled people. He explained the company had a very hard time filling jobs during the peak of the recession. “I’ve seen progress in the past few years in Southwest Michigan and northern Indiana - they are starting to embrace New Tech high schools,” said Tyler. He explained they are not totally technology driven but the educational focus is much more like a work environment in industry. They are teaching students to become an employee and they are linking employers with students. “I meet with the high schools, I meet with the local community colleges” said Tyler.  “We are starting to see connections with high school superintendents talking to local community colleges and local business leaders and then circling back to create a curriculum that makes sense - there are partnerships with local anchor businesses. Part of the problem was a stereotype that manufacturing was gone and I want my children to go into computers, and other professions.” He further commented that these are good jobs for people.

Professor Alexander Verl, Head of Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering & Automation Professor Verl is also Chairman of the IFR Research Committee, Germany. The Fraunhofer IPA was founded in 1959 and incorporated in the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft in 1971. It is one of the largest single research institutes employing around 200 scientists with 50 percent revenue from industrial projects.

The professor noted that in Germany they have been really working on this problem for some time, understanding that the problem is training people on using machine tools, automation, production engineering, and robotics. There has been a great deal of advertising and working hard to bring people into these areas of studies. The number of students has doubled during the last 3 to 4 years as a result. This is still not enough so in Germany they continue efforts and are also working to bring females into industry since today it is 90% male.


Download the full report here: "Throwing Money at Education Isn't Working" NAM-Endorsed Manufacturing Skills Certification System Skills Certification System provides industry-recognized credentials that validate both the “book smarts” and the “street smarts” needed to be productive and successful on the job. IFR Robots CEO Roundtable Video Dr. Ken Ryan wrote “The 'emerged' skill crisis …” Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance

Thoughts & Observations The problems with the United States educational system is analogous to a dying business with investors that think throwing money at the problems will fix it. Unfortunately government money seems to mindlessly flow into education programs. I believe there are fundamental structural, process, and management problems with the educational system that need to be sorted out. It is unclear how this can happen with the layers of bureaucracy. The skills crisis is here and now. Educators and industry need to make changes. We should learn from Germany. Professor Verl’s comments are consistent with my observations and interactions with German companies and educators. In Germany, company management, educators, and government understand how to make education work and the result is they remain a powerful manufacturing force in the world. German exports have held their share of the global market against China and other emerging countries, even as the U.S. share has plummeted. Many of the companies that can’t find skilled people should look in the mirror. These are the same companies that downsized by shedding talent. The management did not understand the value of talent as an asset for growth. They failed to understand that talent could also mentor their new hires, making them more efficient and passing on tribal knowledge. It is disheartening to hear U.S. executives give speeches about these problems when they have moved significant parts of their R&D and manufacturing offshore.  As a result, they terminated skilled and talented people in the U.S.  In contrast, it is curious that many overseas companies doing business in the U.S. have significant R&D and manufacturing centers in the U.S. It is a sad commentary on the education system when the National Association of Manufacturers resorts to a Skills Certification System since the educational system is ineffective. All we need now is for some educators to get involved and ruin this. In 1972, the United Negro College Fund coined the phrase, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste." This in a nutshell describes the problem for the majority of U.S. citizens due to the ineffective educational system. Reengineering the U.S. educational system may be the most important challenge for manufacturing and the country. Government and bureaucracy continue to be an obstacle to meaningful change. There seems to be too many sacred cows. I was on a school board a number of years ago that was wresting with teacher quality. With my industry background, I suggested using statistical quality control analysis based on student outcomes. When I explained the concept of to them, I became a persona non grata (unwelcome person)! Somehow we have to fix this problem or the United States will continue to fall behind the rest of the world.

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