Youngstown Congressman on the Skills Gap and Additive Manufacturing

Rep. Tim Ryan describes the challenge of attracting manufacturing’s next generation, as well as the promise of the technology that this generation is likely to put to use.

Congressman Tim Ryan, co-chair of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Manufacturing Caucus, represents the district that includes Youngstown, Ohio, and the new National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII). I recently spoke with him about additive manufacturing and the attention he has given to manufacturing in general.

Peter Zelinski: What do you recognize about the long-term value of manufacturing? Why is supporting manufacturing important?
Tim Ryan: The short answer is that wages are higher and benefits are better. But manufacturing also has a ripple effect throughout the community. The spin-off jobs from manufacturing are substantially more than from the service sector. We see the value of this in Ohio, where one in every eight jobs is related to the auto industry. 
PZ: What is a significant challenge that you see manufacturers facing? And how do we address it?
TR: Part of it is culture—the old picture of manufacturing being dirty. Part of it is the work force—making sure we have the skills. I think we close the skills gap in part by getting people interested in this work at a very young age, so they are prepared to go into modern manufacturing jobs. I mean making this stuff interesting to kids with Lego programs, robotics programs and having 3D printers in the schools—so kids get interested and excited about this stuff. I think that, over time, will help close the gap. 
I don’t think there is going to be a whole lot of room for low-skilled workers in manufacturing anymore. I say this because I’ve watched this kind of manufacturing fade from our community for 30 years from a distance, and watched it up close in the last 13 years as an elected official. The Steel Belt watched the factories close one after the other. The ones that remain seem to be the ones that do the high-end, highly skilled type of manufacturing. So, again, this is why it’s important for us to invest into the next generation of manufacturing. But the other side of that is that we have the world to ship to now. There is a rising middle class in China and a rising middle class in India. It could be a great opportunity for us. 
PZ: What can we do to better prepare the young people we’re educating for the kind of manufacturing you’re describing?
TR: I think [we should evaluate] something like what they do in Germany, where they try to get kids on some kind of career path at an early age. Give kids skills they need to go into manufacturing. It doesn’t mean that you don’t one day go to college. What it does mean is that you’re ready to go to work. Let kids come out of high school with a skill. 
Another thing that’s going to be key is to have private-public partnerships where the local manufacturers are engaged with the local community college and with the high schools and vocational schools. So that they help shape the curriculum for the kind of jobs and the kind of workers they’re going to need to hire. 
PZ: What do you feel is the lesson is so far of NAMII? What about this facility will be instructive as other National Network for Manufactuing Innovation facilities come online?
TR: Working with Congressman Jason Altmire from western Pennsylvania, we created the Tech Belt region. Our thinking was: from Steel Belt to Rust Belt, and now to Tech Belt. This was in 2007. We started bringing people together from Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown and Pittsburgh. And the idea was: We have all these phenomenal world-class institutions in these different areas, so let’s just get people together and get them talking about [the work] they’re doing. And we basically staffed this out of my office. We kept bringing people together, and then the opportunity to bid on this institute came available. The cooperative team that we had established 5 or 6 years prior to that was the magic, [and that team was why] our region beat out MIT and Georgia Tech. And even Ohio State was in, so even if you say the choice of state was political, the question was, “Who’s best in Ohio?” We  have institutions [the caliber of] Case Western Reserve University, Carnegie Mellon University and the Univerity of Akron, to name a few, all united. It’s tough to beat that. That level of cooperation is the new model.
PZ: How does something like NAMII connect directly to the success of manufacturers? In the years to come, what should we expect in the terms of the real, tangible benefits this institute will deliver? 
TR: The truthful answer is: We don’t know. Who would have been able to predict what the benefits of having an initiative to go to the moon would be? Of all the opportunities for manufacturers [in this technology], you don’t know which of them will be transformational. I think this is going to be really big, but how exactly it plays out is, I think, hard for anyone to guess.
Another thing I would say is that the range of benefits for this technology isn’t just manufacturing in the traditional sense. It also empowers individuals. It could contribute to the further decentralization of our economy. Compare it to the progress from having one telephone on the block, to having one phone in the home, to having one phone in every room, to everyone having a cell phone. Or the progress from one computer in a library, to one computer in every home, to everyone having a computer in their pocket. Manufacturing, I think, in a lot of ways, is moving in that direction, too—toward more individualized manufacturing. 
Different sectors of the economy can benefit from this. In the defense sector, for example: You’re in the middle of the desert and it may take a couple of days to get a part for a truck that breaks down. Within the next few years, in that situation, you may be able to print that part—and save a lot of money for the taxpayer.  Or look at healthcare. Someone was describing to me the picture of surgeons using MRI to map the brain, then printing up a model of the brain of a particular patient to know exactly what they’re about to find before picking up the scalpel. So this is about manufacturing, but it has all of these other implications that are going to benefit our society.  

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