“The United States ought to maintain its reputation as the most innovative place in the world. Reputation can be built; reputation can be lost.” So said Governor John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable and former three-term governor of Michigan, while moderating a panel discussion among industry representatives at a conference devoted to building partnerships among industry, academia and government while addressing issues related to advanced manufacturing.
Engler and the panelists agreed that one of the keys to maintaining innovation in the United States is preparing today’s students for technical careers in the new world of advanced manufacturing. “There are no low-tech jobs anymore,” Engler said.
Panelists David Bozeman, senior vice president at Caterpillar, and W. James (Jim) McNerney, Jr., president and CEO of The Boeing Company, both said it’s a struggle finding qualified applicants for jobs at their companies and in their supply chains. There is a need not just for engineers with four-year degrees, they said, but also for people with both technical and business skills, and for people with technical skills who may have a community college degree. Bozeman said, “We want a flexible workforce, not just blue collar. It’s every color.”
Bozeman and McNerney said lack of engineering and technical talent here is one reason—market forces being another—that their companies conduct some research and development in other countries. “It’s not an easy equation,” McNerney said. “We do compete against [companies] who get more help from their government. But there are technical reasons too—we do not have enough technical folks. We’re having trouble finding enough STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] folks.”
Given these challenges, a hot topic during the panel discussion and the question-and-answer period was how to encourage students to pursue engineering and other technical fields.
One audience member challenged industry to bring their products to schools, invite students to their plants, and start an exchange program with teachers. McNerney said, “You gave me an idea. We already bring in kids. But I’m not sure the principals and teachers are excited about advanced manufacturing. How do we engage the leadership of schools so that as they teach kids, this becomes a point of encouragement?”
Bozeman noted that students, parents, and teachers often don’t have an accurate perception of working in advanced manufacturing. “The image ends up being dirty, dark, and dangerous. When you walk into Boeing or John Deere or Caterpillar, it’s far from dirty, dark, and dangerous. A lot of students would say, ‘I want to do that’ if they could see it.”
A recurring theme during the discussion was that the daily lives of today’s students offer plenty of experience with computers, but not much opportunity for technical and hands-on experiences—soldering, welding, building circuits, repairing cars and tractors.
McNerney said it now takes several weeks longer to train new hires because they don’t come in with some of these skills.
As for preparing college students for work in advanced manufacturing, McNerney called for more internships so that graduates can hit the ground running. “Double your internship program,” he said, speaking to the university representatives in the room.
In addition to discussing how to prepare today’s students for the jobs of the future, another topic of conversation was how many jobs are created by advanced manufacturing, which tends to replace some people power with automation.
McNerney responded, “I think we’re on the verge of an American manufacturing renaissance. Most advanced manufacturing has a component of automation replacing labor. It’s frustrating. But the jobs will come. Capital grows, then you get jobs.”
Bozeman added that advanced manufacturing adds jobs all through the supply chain. And Engler said, “We don’t count manufacturing-associated jobs well. There is a multiplier effect with manufacturing jobs.”
Perhaps the most candid moment of the day came when a professor asked if industry might increase research funding to universities in light of stalled or declining government funding. McNerney answered—in a friendly way—“We think you’re fat, you’re bureaucratic, you have plenty of money. We’re expecting universities to become more focused yourselves as opposed to coming to us for money. Universities need to think about productivity as we do.”
Bozeman nodded and added that universities should be more responsive. “You need to touch, feel, and connect with speed and agility,” he said. “Our investment communities or customers aren’t going to wait.”
Customers, the panelists emphasized, are the key to innovation. “If innovation is not tied to your customers, you’re going to lose,” said McNerney.
“It’s about the customer and partnerships with people in this room,” Bozeman said.