Don’t Overlook Manufacturing as a STEM Career

In discussions of how to build the future STEM workforce, modern manufacturing jobs usually don’t make the short list. Here’s why they should.

Fueled by reports of industry growth and a shortage of workers, kids are increasingly nudged toward careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)—ranging from computer scientist positions to rocket scientist jobs at NASA.

But there’s another often overlooked route to lucrative STEM jobs: high-tech manufacturing. The route to these jobs—through community college or technical school—is more immediate (and cheaper) than training in many other fields. Modern manufacturing jobs usually don’t make it into the mainstream STEM discussion, but they should. The jobs are often rewarding, well paid, and don’t require a decade to secure.

The manufacturing jobs we’re talking about aren’t the Model-T assembly-line factories of yesteryear. Crain’s Chicago Business recently profiled a small manufacturing company that makes everything from spiral staircases to dining room tables. Before anyone touches the metal, however, architectural detailers use 3D scanners and computer-aided design (CAD) software to create projects digitally. Only approximately 30 percent of the firm’s time is spent fabricating products—the rest is spent designing and tweaking computers. The firm is located in Chicago, which recently picked up a $70 million dollar federal grant plus another $250 million in state and private money to build a digital manufacturing institute. The federal funding is through the Obama Administration’s push to bring manufacturing back to US shores.

In the coming years, employers in manufacturing and elsewhere will be searching for workers who have various CAD and computer skills. According to employment forecasts in a Georgetown University report, employers in 2020 will seek “cognitive skills such as communication and analytics from job applicants rather than physical skills traditionally associated with manufacturing.”

STEM careers that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, such as many manufacturing jobs, can pay well, too. A Brookings report aptly titled “The Hidden STEM Economy” found that a whopping one-half of all STEM jobs don’t require a four-year college degree. These jobs pay an average of $53,000 per year—10 percent higher than jobs with similar educational requirements.

Despite these revealing numbers, the stigma surrounding associate degrees or certificates is still hard to shake. Another Georgetown report found the United States hasn’t increased its sub-baccalaureate attainment since the Baby Boom era. Furthermore, we underinvest in the whole system. The Brookings report also says only one-fifth of the $4.3 billion spent annually by the federal government on STEM education and training supports sub-bachelor’s level training.

Some groups, however, are forging a path for youth.

Although they might not think of it this way, involving more kids in the maker movement is one way to introduce them to the idea of manufacturing. In fact, tinkering might be the first chance for kids to discover if making stuff even appeals to them.

Pittsburgh is leading the way, with all sorts of maker activities kids can explore while developing the critical thinking skills they need. For example, at Assemble—in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood, a largely low-income neighborhood on the city’s East End—kids and tweens are inventing pencils that squeak (much to teachers’ dismay, one can imagine) when circuits connect with skin. They’re inventing a robot that changes color when it becomes too hot or too cold. They’re also learning to code and make apps through the Digital Corps. The programs are so popular that older siblings use the excuse of “babysitting” their young siblings so they, too, can attend.

Resurging apprenticeship programs might be another way of encouraging kids to consider manufacturing careers. The Obama Administration recently allocated $100 million dollars to apprenticeship grants, some of which will go toward advanced manufacturing. Making the announcement at training-rich Community College of Allegheny County, Obama said that 87 percent of apprentices pin down a job after program completion, with an average starting salary of more than $50,000.

Entrepreneurship is another way to build the manufacturing ecosystem. Places such as Pittsburgh are tapping the wealth of local manufacturing talent to foster new startups and, in turn, provide future jobs. The Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board in the city is teaming up with Carnegie Mellon, TechShop, and a number of other organizations to train and reconnect people with manufacturing skills to manufacturing start-ups. The partnership aims to help link together entrepreneurs, engineers, unions, and manufacturers to capture Pennsylvania’s talent and to prevent manufacturing companies from heading overseas.

Back in Chicago, the Austin Polytechnical Academy is a unique partnership between a public school and more than 60 manufacturers. Now in its seventh year, the high school program trains teens and connects them with solid-paying jobs with the partnering manufacturers. The teens, most of whom are low-income African American youth, leave high school with a recognized certificate, a résumé that includes internships and on-the-job experience, college-prep coursework, and the soft skills employers like to see. The employers agree to help pay for their continuing education.

As 2012 grad Jeralmiah Harmon said recently on Vocalo’s Barbershop Show, “I graduated on a Saturday and I started working that Monday.”

Of course, not all 18-year-olds will want to kick off a manufacturing job, or any career, that quickly. That’s up to them. But giving them the chance to explore what manufacturing means in the 21st century can only sharpen how well they’re prepared for the demands of any job in the future.

Published June 11, 2014