- By Dave Tilstone
- September 22, 2020
Automation is the key to sustained economic prosperity for American manufacturing. However, in order to truly tap into its potential, the U.S. must ensure that the industry has the necessary talent pool to work in tandem with these new technologies. The key is a viable STEM education system that will create a pipeline of necessary talent.
It wasn’t hard for workers at MetalQuest in Hebron, Nebraska, to explain what automation technologies meant to their company in a recently published YouTube video.
“The myth out there is that robots take jobs … that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said one worker, who added that automation creates a partnership, allowing companies to give robots monotonous tasks while opening opportunities for employees to take on higher skill tasks that bring value to a job.
But the benefits of automation, as we know, don’t stop there, with some studies showing that companies who integrate automation technologies not only produce more, but are able to increase wages for their workers. The representatives from MetalQuest also highlighted automation’s ability to keep costs down for clients, making the company as a whole more competitive on the world stage.
As automation technologies continue to develop at a rapid pace, it’s imperative that companies just like MetalQuest have the requisite support to fully leverage the potential behind automation.
Failing to do so will inhibit America’s ability to remain globally competitive.
The key to success: Reshaping our STEM education system
The key factor to ensuring a steady stream of talent in this space will be to rethink our approach to STEM education, which for years has fallen woefully behind manufacturing powerhouses like China and India, who produce a significantly larger pool of STEM graduates year after year. And while western countries like Switzerland and Germany sport the model apprenticeship and STEM education systems, countries like the United States continually falls short.
According to recent studies, half a million manufacturing jobs were left vacant last year, an issue that if left unaddressed, could result in approximately $454 billion in lost revenue for the U.S. by 2028.
Reinvigorating our STEM education system in order to specifically address this dilemma will include shifting curriculum focus for students at a younger age, working to dispel myths surrounding industries like manufacturing, and opening access to robust apprenticeship programs.
First, a STEM-centric curriculum should be implemented for students at a younger age. The former Chancellor of the University of California, Linda PB Katehi has said, “For our economy to thrive in the future, we need more young women, as well as young men, to have opportunities to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics and pursue careers in these areas.”
Research has shown that children’s minds are more receptive to subjects like math at a young age. That’s why it’s vitally important for this process to begin, if possible, at the pre-kindergarten level.
This new approach to STEM curriculum should focus on hands-on activities that make the learning process fun and engaging, while showing the students the value of these skills beyond the four walls of their classroom. Children should be shown innovators in science and engineering such as Henry Ford or Mary Jackson of NASA, and be able to see themselves.
Important for the prosperity of American automation efforts will be leveraging school projects that incorporate connected devices, illustrating how automation’s positive impact on society will be key to sparking students’ interest and leading them down a path to a STEM future.
Dispelling the myths surrounding manufacturing
Second, students must be reminded that, as others in my field have noted, industries such as manufacturing are anything but low tech. My colleague at alliantgroup, Myron Moser, who currently serves as chairman of the board at Hartfiel Automation in Minnesota, discussed this issue in a recent opinion piece, saying that “Integrating [automation] technologies into American manufacturing plants will not only create opportunities of growth for these businesses, it will also help to swipe away an old stereotype of manufacturing: that it’s dirty, dark and dangerous.”
Moser was right. The average American likely does think of American manufacturing plants as dark, dingy, full of loud noises and only involving low-skilled work. As MetalQuest said about automation taking jobs, nothing could be further from the truth. These warehouses are using state-of-the-art technologies, with impeccably clean facilities allowing for thought provoking work daily.
Instructors should make this notion abundantly clear for students. We need more field trips to job sites, working with the same automation technologies that are used in the professional world while highlighting the dramatic impact these jobs have on society at large.
Third, and arguably most important, is the importance of opening up apprenticeship opportunities for students. High school students in particular should have the chance to work directly with professionals in the field, a chance that again could spark the necessary interest to carry them into a STEM career.
Unfortunately, there are stigmas surrounding apprenticeships or vocational training programs, with many parents viewing a four-year college degree as the only way to be successful in this country.
However, the numbers show a different story, as students who earned a four-year degree are faced with increased student debt, while those working in trades learned at vocational schools are left with little debt, competitive salaries and job stability. These disparities have become even more clear as universities struggle to show differentiation and a worthy return on investment in the wake of COVID-19.
Learning while on the job programs allow students to save money, receive a hands-on education, and most likely a direct job placement. There is no doubt that apprenticeships and vocational training schools, which companies should attempt to mimic with their own in-house retraining programs, will be imperative to America’s long term economic success. But they need to be seen as a viable option for students who have been conditioned to believe otherwise. The first step? Showcasing these amazing benefits.
The time to act is now--our success depends on it
At one point in MetalQuest’s video on what automation meant to their company, an employee said, “Robots were always for the big companies. It was something really cool that we paid attention to but it wasn’t something we could actually adopt. But then the price points started to come down and we saw that it was really something that we needed to jump on.”
This sentiment has been the case for countless U.S. companies, who are just recently discovering the true value behind automation technologies. And while there has been a great step in the right direction, it will all be for naught without the right human support to realize all of the potential and success to come.
Failing to address a lacking pool of STEM talent in the U.S. will stall innovation efforts and result in adversarial countries like China usurping America’s ability to have impact on the global supply chain.
Critics have increasingly been wary of America’s STEM proficiency. What should cause concern is that there is no road that leads to this sort of sustained economic prosperity that doesn’t involve a viable STEM education system in the U.S.
It’s time to get to work to make the changes necessary to pave that road ourselves.
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