This post was written by Frank Britt, CEO of Penn Foster, and Jan Bray, president of Bray Strategies and former executive director of the Association for Career & Technical Education.
In the movie “The Graduate,” Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin, a recent college alumnus, received one word of advice about where he should invest his future: Plastics. Today, we offer students a different word of advice: Manufacturing.
Manufacturing means many things in the 21st century. Traditional plant operations continue to need talent for front-line and management positions, as these businesses demand greater efficiency and innovation to remain globally competitive. Urban manufacturing in the form of small-scale, high tech production is also experiencing a renaissance and requires both traditional front-line employees and college graduates to fill its ranks.
Opportunities in Manufacturing
With all of these jobs becoming available, American manufacturing is enjoying a revival, marking a fundamental shift from the tendency to send manufacturing jobs offshore. Electronics and car companies like Samsung, Toyota, Honda and Nissan are building in the U.S. and plan to export American products to the rest of the world, according to research by the Boston Consulting Group. Estimates are this trend toward re-shoring of industries back to America could lead to the creation of 2.5 to 5 million jobs by the end of the decade.
Despite the development occurring within the manufacturing industry, there is still an obvious need for new manufacturing professionals. In December 2012, there were 224,000 manufacturing job openings, but only 155,000 hires, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Closing this skills gap would not just aid the manufacturing industry, but would meaningfully contribute to resolving America’s unemployment challenges in both the short- and long-term.
Job hunters looking for a new career should also take note of starting salaries for manufacturing jobs. Sheet metal workers earn a median salary of $41,710 and diesel engine mechanics earn a median salary of $46,660, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Considering that these careers do not require four years of post-secondary schooling, they represent a favorable return on investment and robust place to begin a 30-year career that will inevitably require ongoing training.
These fields also represent opportunities for personal growth. Individuals hoping to change their career trajectory can gain skills in manufacturing that will allow them to earn higher pay at their current jobs. They will also require a significant increase in managers and executives who are equipped to take on the next generation of industrial and manufacturing sectors.
Sourcing Future Talent
Today, a limited number of students actually have the foundational training needed to fill manufacturing positions. Gone are the days of traditional shop classes, or even vocational training, as for many years career and technical education was cut by contracting budgets. At the same time, negative impressions of manufacturing and other blue collar industries often leave some student advisors, parents and many adult students feeling hesitant about recommending the pursuit of education in these fields. Policy makers and school districts are starting to talk again about career and technical education as a way to reform schools, however.
A key catalyst is the pending 2014 Common Core high school standards that will provide a consistent understanding of what students are expected to learn, with a particular focus on the knowledge and skills young people need for success in both college and careers.
Alternatives to a Traditional Education
To secure the promise of the manufacturing sector, we must broaden our view of higher education to extend well beyond traditional postsecondary pathways. There are an increasing variety of attractive high school and post-high school training and skill development pathways, including certificate programs, many of which offer education focused on manufacturing. In fact, certificate enrollments have risen 22 percent in the past few years to over a million awards annually, and are now the fastest growing form of postsecondary credentials in the nation, surpassing associate’s and master’s degrees.
This trend highlights a gradual migration and shift in the industrial career marketplace that offers significant growth and income opportunities. These changes are marking a revolution in the way both traditional and adult students are considering charting their education pathways. In an inflexible economy, however, students interested in skilled trades need to have flexible and affordable options for postsecondary education, from certificate and associate’s degree programs to career tech and online programs.
A Path Forward
Online degree and certificate programs offer a personalized approach to training for these manufacturing careers. They allow students to take specialized courses for these fields on their own time. There are also opportunities for students who do not want a fully online learning experience. Hybrid options offer the hands-on experience these students need to supplement their online technical training.
Preparing students is what we’re doing at Penn Foster, a career-focused online and hybrid education institution. Penn Foster students have the chance to train for high-demand careers in areas like manufacturing by completing degrees in engineering technology, construction technology, and industrial electronics and electrical maintenance technology.
As “Made in the U.S.A.” becomes a popular catchphrase again for American brands, we urge everyone to remember the people behind this phrase: the employees of America’s manufacturing industries. With all of the options available to them, people drawn toward the skilled trades and eventually industrial management roles should be praised for their decisions to pursue these career paths. America will always need welders, factory managers and electricians. And those jobs cannot be sent offshore.
As President Barack Obama has explained, it’s time to start recognizing the U.S. manufacturing industry’s potential for success. Starting with high schools, we need to invest in education that prepares our students for high paying, in-demand manufacturing jobs. This means making online and hands-on technical training more readily available for these students and ensuring that, from a young age, they understand the variety of career paths available to them.
Based on their success in the classroom and the workforce, Americans can learn that postsecondary education is no longer just reserved for students pursuing four-year degrees. It also encompasses the students wielding the tools and technology that will rebuild and repower American industries.
Content from Bostinno, April 2013. Why Students, Parents & School Administrators Need to Reconsider Manufacturing Career Paths