Even at a time when the unemployment rate in the U.S. has been stuck at around 8 percent for more than 40 months in a row, U.S. manufacturing has had difficulty recruiting qualified candidates to be engineers, machinists, welders and machine service and repair technicians. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports about 300,000+ unfilled positions in manufacturing at this time.
We can implement three key improvements to help alleviate this shortage, and two of those are easier issues to solve: 1) Improve STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education in schools, 2) highlight the importance of a degree as well as industry-backed credentials, and 3) communicate to parents, students and educators that U.S. manufacturing pays more than other industries.
The more difficult issue to solve is in our current education system and our ability to teach math and science at a young age in a way that resonates with young people. We have to teach, not by a textbook, and not by standardized tests, but by real-world examples of math and science problems that help students understand math and science. Our current education system is designed to teach some STEM to all students at a time when industry is saying we should be teaching all STEM to some—the students who actually understand it not through rote memorization, but because they are able to do the critical thinking and problem solving.
As we fix that one big issue, which unfortunately will take time, we can still focus on the two issues that are easier to fix. One is the importance of credentials, certifications and degrees, and the other is that many people are unaware of the overwhelming advantage that U.S. manufacturing has over all other industries combined in the area of compensation and benefits.
I am talking to more engineering schools these days who say enrollment is finally beginning to head in the right direction again. The baby boom generation of engineers is still retiring faster than we can keep up, and we need to communicate with young people who have the acumen for an engineering degree that they have a future in our industry. The rate of growth in STEM-related jobs is projected by the BLS to grow 17.9 percent in this decade versus 9.8 percent for all other industries.
Beyond engineers, we need workers who are good at math and good with their hands who may not think of themselves as engineers, and we need to encourage those young people to attend community college versus a 4-year school. Are you aware that only 50 percent of students who enter college actually graduate after 6 years, and whether they graduate with a degree or not, they have an average of more than $26,000 in student loan debt?
We have to get real about where young people should seek their post-secondary education and encourage them to enter a STEM program at a community college before making such a large investment and taking out student loans for a college education. Most community college programs are so affordable and allow for flexible time schedules that students can actually work while they go to school and pay for school on a pay as you go basis.
Even if the student decides to go on to finish their 4-year degree in engineering, 79 percent of STEM students will graduate after 4 years versus the 50 percent of all students after 6 years, and they will have far less student loan debt as a result of having begun their college career at a community college.
AMT works with The National Coalition of Advanced Technology Centers (NCATC), a group of 165-plus community colleges in most major cities, as well as centers of manufacturing around the U.S., and we encourage parents and students to investigate the terrific advanced manufacturing technology programs at these schools.
At an NCATC member school, students can participate in an internship program, earn an associate degree and where applicable, earn a NIMS credential. The NIMS credentials for machinists and welders are identifiable and portable and demonstrate to companies that the individual has been through an education or training program at a NIMS accredited school, and they have passed a nationally accredited exam to earn their credential.
According to BLS, STEM workers are far less likely to experience joblessness over their career and STEM workers earn on average, 27 percent more in annual compensation and benefits than non-STEM workers (more than $77,000 versus more than $56,000). If we can communicate that math to parents, students, educators and administrators, they will see that a career in U.S. manufacturing is their most viable option.