The Engineers Who Will Build The Future
By Michael Gougis - Contributing Writer
December 17, 2013 – The stuff on display at the upcoming AeroDef Manufacturing Summit & Exposition would leave even the most far-sighted sci-fi writers scratching their heads, perplexed and confused.
It’s not just, for example, that there’s a robot that can assemble parts for a satellite. There’s a more fundamental question – who developed the skills to build such a robot in the first place?
It’s not just the intricate, artistic components of a spacecraft – who figured out how to create such a component in the first place?
Workforce development – teaching students how to become engineers, and teaching existing engineers how to stay on top of their games – is one of the key missions of SME, which is hosting the conference at the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center February 25-27.
Having a trained workforce is so critical to the health of the aerospace and defense industry that SME – formerly known as the Society of Manufacturing Engineers – is devoting time, effort and money to improving the training and development of the nation’s base of engineers and manufacturing knowledge.
The effort, the struggle, makes sense when you look at an amazing piece of manufacturing technology on display at an event like the SME expo and ask yourself – who’s gonna run that thing?
“Companies spend millions of dollars on equipment, and if their people can’t operate it, what is the point? What is the point?” asks Pamela Hurt, industry manager-workforce development for SME. “What we’re really doing (with workforce development) is maximizing your investment in your equipment and your people. Workforce development is all around securing the talent that you need to be a successful manufacturer.”
The shortage of qualified employees capable of meeting the nation’s needs for engineers, scientists and technicians is well documented. According to the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, more than half of the nation’s employers say they struggle to find qualified employees. In the fields where a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education is required, the unemployment rate is half that of the nation as a whole.
Shortly after Hurt joined SME, she noticed that the work she was doing was connected to the concept of workforce development, she says.
“I joined SME as a new product development manager. As I managed the cross-functional teams internally to identify and validate new product ideas, it seemed like everything that we touched on was in some form or fashion related to helping develop and deliver a talented workforce to manufacturers,” Hurt says.
SME invests in workforce development in two key ways. First is an emphasis on teaching students the skills they need to become engineers and manufacturers. The SME Education Foundation supports hundreds of college and university students every year, says Rodney Grover, senior development officer for the foundation.
“We have listened to the manufacturing industry’s concerns about the shortage in the future workforce pipeline and provided a path for students, educators and industry to collaborate and address these concerns,” Grover says.
SME feels that industry needs to increase its interaction with the education system to help ensure that schools produce students who are capable of meeting the industry’s technical needs, Hurt says.
“We create a continuum of products and services for government agencies, schools and companies to create and build and sustain a talented workforce,” Hurt says. “We are encouraging our membership to get engaged and remain engaged with the education system to ensure that the product that they are delivering is a product that we want to use.
“We need to be working with all of the touchpoints that secure and develop that talent to encourage more kids to take science, technology, engineering and math courses so that when they graduate high school, they will be somewhat career-ready or go on to community colleges or universities to be successful, that they can then move up into our companies and be prepared when they hit the front door.”
But beyond the traditional education system, engineering and manufacturing companies face additional challenges in keeping their workforce up to date. The speed at which technology advances places additional educational and training demands on those employees.
“It’s the same thing as buying a new camera and not taking advantage of learning how to use all of the bells and whistles. Look at your phone. Look at your camera. All of this fantastic equipment that’s available – it’s only fantastic if you’re actually using it in the way that it’s designed to be used,” Hurt says.
“In a company environment, it’s all around how you continue to upgrade and retrain your existing workers so they can keep up with the technology advancements so that we can maximize the investment that we have in our equipment and our machinery by using our people.
“It is a challenge. The company that’s got 10 people has got significantly different requirements around their talent management than companies that have 2,500 employees. Your production manager may be your maintenance manager and may be your finance manager, right?”
Adding to the challenge can be the extended gestation period for new technologies and processes to become financially feasible. While additive manufacturing is now transforming our manufacturing processes, SME has been supporting the concept for more than 20 years, Hurt says. Part of the challenge is figuring out what skill sets are going to be needed in five years, as well as in 25 years.
“We are constantly surveying the landscape to identify those emerging technologies that we need to start focusing on,” Hurt says.
The lack of a manufacturing base – and the lack of a workforce capable of functioning in an up-to-date technologically advanced facility – has broad implications for any society. The security implications are obvious. But more than that are the economic impacts. Without massive reserves of natural resources for export, manufacturing has proven to provide a solid basis for a region’s economic growth. It is no coincidence that many of the world’s current emerging economies also feature strong manufacturing bases.
“If we can’t make things in this country, we can’t really make money. Strong manufacturing companies make strong economies,” Hurt says. “A manufacturing economy is very much the foundation element to successful communities. Successful communities build successful regions, and successful regions build successful countries. Our ability to support and grow our manufacturing is critically important to the economic health of this country.”