Historically, manufacturing has been a blue-collar industry in America that relies on manual labor. Think “manufacturing” and what often comes to mind is the iconic opening scene of the 1970s TV comedy “Laverne & Shirley,” with the two actresses working the line at a bottling plant. But that's an outdated notion – most of those hands-on jobs have gone overseas or disappeared. Today, the manufacturing industry relies heavily on automation and is powered by workers with skills in science, technology, engineering and math.
"There is a very real reorientation of what manufacturing is in the United States that does require a significant training effort," says Mark Muro, director of policy for the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.
To encourage educators, students and parents to explore career opportunities in modern manufacturing, Discovery Education and Alcoa Foundation -- the philanthropic branch of the metals manufacturing company -- are rolling out a new initiative: Manufacture Your Future.
The new website, which launches May 28, offers educational materials and other resources for teachers and parents of middle school and high school students. The goal is to facilitate development of "key STEM and critical thinking skills" and "provide a school-to-home connection," according to the site.
"What we are doing is developing materials that fit into what they [school districts] need to teach and are matched to standards," says Mary Rollins, who oversees corporate partnerships at Discovery Education. The lesson plans are only one component, however. Manufacture Your Future also offers “discussion starters” for parents and pamphlets on career guidance that help match personality types to appropriate trajectories within. Materials for guidance counselors include descriptions and likely salary ranges for jobs in computer programming, mechanical engineering and environmental engineering, among other fields – all options that are part of the modern manufacturing industry.
In addition to everything the website has to offer, Discovery and Alcoa are planning a virtual field trip to coincide with National Manufacturing Day on Oct. 3. Through a live event hosted at an Alcoa facility, students will have an opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at careers in manufacturing.
The idea for Manufacture Your Future came from casual conversations between employees of the Alcoa Foundation and Discovery Education, Rollins says. After learning that manufacturing jobs are still not being filled, executives at Discovery decided to help cultivate a training program, Rollins explains. Alcoa financed the project and helped Discovery create the coursework.
After watching the manufacturing industry in America shrink and bleed jobs for years, the industry, particularly advanced manufacturing, has recently enjoyed a small but significant rebound. Since 2010, the industry has added more than 600,000 jobs, according to the Commerce Department. The Brookings Institution defines advanced manufacturing as industries with a higher-than-average investment in research and development that also have a high percentage of STEM workers. These industries include manufacturing of semi-conductors, aerospace products, and ship- and boat-building parts, among many other things.
It’s a glimpse at the future of manufacturing in America. “The fact is that advanced manufacturing is increasingly what the U.S. has -- and will have,” Muro says.
But increasing the number of qualified applicants in advanced manufacturing fields isn’t the industry’s only concern. There is also a need to offset the number of older workers who are retiring.
"It's good that private corporations take responsibility to provide training to people they want to hire," says Stan Veuger, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who testified before Congress recently on revitalizing the American manufacturing industry.
Growth of the the advanced manufacturing industry is also a priority for the Obama administration. After the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report in 2011 outlining a plan for America to revitalize its advanced manufacturing sector, President Barack Obama created an inter-agency office charged with helping the industry scale-up production of new technologies.
It's a strategy to "create high-quality manufacturing jobs and enhance America’s global competitiveness," according to a White House press release. Klaus Kleinfeld, chairman and CEO of Alcoa, is one of the executives who serves on the steering committee for the initiative.
Experts warn that, while companies are eager to create jobs, advanced manufacturing will need to be leaner and more productive than it has been in the past in order to stay competitive. That means there will be only a "modest number of workers" when it comes to "shop-floor positions," Muro says. But the focus on closing the STEM skills gap is on target.
"A lot of the kids who end up going into STEM filled careers will end up with better jobs than they would have otherwise," Veuger says.