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RANDOLPH CENTER, Vt. — With vertical mills, lathes and flat screen monitors at their disposal, members of Vermont Technical College’s Fabrication Club are hard at work in Morrill Hall.
Jacob Walker is stationed at a Dell computer working on a 3-D design for what will be a decorative stainless-steel maple leaf. To get from design to actual product involves using advanced computer software plus a waterjet, a traditional manufacturing machine.
Walker, 19, is in the school’s two-year mechanical engineering program, a first step on the road to study manufacturing in the college’s new bachelor’s degree program. “You can learn to build something, but the manufacturing behind it to be able to produce it, I think that’s very important to have an understanding of how it works,” he says.
The students at Vermont Tech aren’t preparing to build products through physically demanding factory work as much as they are studying to up their technical skills. Manufacturing undergrads take classes in calculus, 3-D printing and a slew of other specialized subjects.
Manufacturing, which shed nearly a third of its workforce between 2000 and 2010, is rebounding as a solid path to the middle class. The industry has taken a more tech-intensive twist, making skills like practice in 3-D design — like the work Walker is doing — critical for future employment. Schools are taking notice.
Despite President Donald Trump’s campaign vow to revive manufacturing, the industry isn’t expected to rebound to its heyday. At its peak in the late 1970s, it employed 19 million people. Today, the sector employs roughly 12.4 million; the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that number will fall slowly over the next decade to 11.6 million.
But the strong economy, and the return of manufacturing operations to the United States as labor costs rise abroad, have led some companies to add jobs. There were about 360,000 hires in January 2018, an increase of 52,000 over the year before, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Businesses are seeking workers whose profile is different from that of decades past, when a high school diploma was more than enough. As robots take over much of the manual labor in factories, the new jobs being created tend to require computer and engineering skills and advanced training.
That’s helped to fuel a boomlet of college investment in manufacturing programs. In November 2017, Washington state’s Shoreline Community College announced a new two-year degree in mechatronics — which prepares students to work with manufacturing systems. In Illinois, Chicago’s College to Careers initiative is prepping local students for careers in manufacturing. The city will spend $75 million on a new manufacturing training facility, to open in fall of 2018, one of many initiatives planned through College to Careers. This year Alabama became the first state to offer certification from the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council at all its public colleges.
Vermont Technical College, a rural college with about 1,600 students that specializes in hands-on learning, recently started a bachelor’s degree program in manufacturing engineering technology. Its first class — of nine students — graduated in June 2017. This year’s graduating class has 11 students, and the school is planning for larger classes in the future, says Christopher Gray, assistant professor for manufacturing and mechanical engineering technology at the school. But getting teens and young adults to study manufacturing, an industry that may seem more gritty than glamorous, isn’t always easy, say industry experts.
During Manufacturing Processes 1, Gray guides about a dozen students as they work on fine-tuning basic manufacturing skills. Half the group is learning to turn items on a lathe and the other half is learning to use vertical milling machines.
There’s buzzing and whizzing and safety goggles and white boards.
Gray is on one side of the class with the lathe-turning students. “In an emergency how would you stop it right now?” he asks one as a lathe runs. Within seconds the student calmly powers off the machine, and Gray continues his rounds.
Most of these students are in their second year of school and studying automotive or diesel technology, Gray says, but the class is also for manufacturing majors.
Gray spends the nearly three-hour lab going from student to student, helping them with tasks like creating a piston and showing them how to safely and effectively use the manufacturing machines.
Every student is learning skills that can set them on a path to a manufacturing career. Students with the right training can work in a variety of areas, such as product design, operations management, welding, machining or engineering.
Vermont is looking to increase employment and production at manufacturing companies throughout the state. One such company, Logic Supply, a Vermont-based international business that builds computers, recently signed an agreement with the state to open a new manufacturing and warehouse facility, creating 83 new jobs by the end of 2020. In February 2017, the Vermont Economic Development Authority approved $7.1 million in economic development financing for manufacturing, agricultural, energy and small business projects. Through this program, Vermont’s Rhino Foods, for example, was approved for $294,176 in financing to purchase new machinery and equipment and other manufacturing needs.
“Right now, in the state of Vermont, I’d estimate there’s probably upwards of a thousand open positions in manufacturing that we can’t fill ’cause we just don’t have the people,” says Gray. “Anywhere you go, you can walk into a manufacturing company and they’re looking to hire.”
Manufacturing jobs can pay between $26,000 to more than $100,000, with those who earn a college degree more likely to command a competitive salary. “Most of my students will leave my courses and make more money than I make now,” says Gray.
Many of the fastest growing jobs in the state are in manufacturing, according to a 2016 report from Vermont’s department of labor. Nationwide, about 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled by 2025, according to a study by the consulting firm Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, a trade group.
A wave of baby boomer retirements in the industry — expected to total 2.7 million by 2025 — is contributing to that gap.
But these manufacturing jobs are nothing like those depicted on black-and-white television shows from the 1950s and 60s. Some may still think manufacturing is like “the old Lucille Ball comedy when she’s [in] the chocolate factory and she starts to lose her place in the factory and her chocolates start getting all mixed up,” says Neil Reddy, executive director of the nonprofit Manufacturing Skills Standards Council. Or, he says, they may think of low-tech labor jobs where manufacturing workers repetitively do a single task all day, such as sewing the same pattern for the sole of a shoe. But those visions bear little relationship to manufacturing now.
Today, that work is largely done by machines. Humans are needed to program the computers that run those machines, Reddy says — and those skills are in short supply.
In the Deloitte-Manufacturing Institute study, 70 percent of manufacturing executives said their current employees didn’t have the right technology and computer skills. The executives also said their workers lacked problem solving skills (69 percent), basic technical training (67 percent) and math skills (60 percent).
While some economists predict that automation will continue to wipe out manufacturing jobs, Reddy and others in the industry suggest that these technologies could actually generate employment. As robots help improve the efficiency and quality of products, Reddy says, demand will increase, leading to the opening of more plants.
But in Vermont, and around the country, getting more students to take manufacturing courses and work in this industry is a challenge.
“There’s not enough kids interested,” says Jeannine Kunz, vice president of Tooling U-SME, a branch of what was once called the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. “We need to grow the pipeline.”
About 27 percent of manufacturing workers are 55 or older.
Schools with top-of-the-line technology, like 3-D printers, can be a draw for millennials, Kunz says. But if a school doesn’t have these resources, manufacturing can be a tough sell.
Plus, getting Mom and Dad to forget what they think they know about the industry can also be difficult. “One of the barriers is helping parents understand what manufacturing is,” says Patricia L. Moulton, president of Vermont Tech. Sometimes, Moulton says, a young adult may want to study manufacturing but parents disapprove because they think manufacturing requires little-to-no skills and can quickly lead to unemployment. Her message to those parents: “It’s not your father’s manufacturing anymore … It’s innovative. It’s new, it’s different.”
It’s also more academically rigorous than parents might think. At Vermont Tech, students learn about physics in addition to metrology inspection and computer-driven manufacturing.
Deema AL Namee came to Vermont Tech to study in the two-year mechanical engineering technology program, she says, but “when they started the manufacturing program, it was a clear choice for me to go into that.” AL Namee expects to graduate in May and is the only woman in her graduating class.
“I love all of the hands-on work that we do,” says the 21-year-old. “Overseeing a process from a start of a design until a full end product. That’s really exciting to me.”
AL Namee doesn’t see a shrinking industry; she sees growth and opportunity. “I’m quite excited to get out there in the workforce.”
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the city where Vermont Tech is located.