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How to prepare students for the future of manufacturing

The future of manufacturing faces a major skills gap that could grow as the workforce struggles to keep up with further technological advances
By Simon Leigh, Senior Manager of Design & Manufacturing Education Strategy, Autodesk
September 21st, 2022

The future of manufacturing faces a major skills gap that could grow as the workforce struggles to keep up with further technological advances

Many sectors have embraced digital transformation in the workplace, welcoming in advanced technology, new tools, and greater efficiency. In the design and manufacturing industry, digital transformation has led to the creation of new jobs and opportunities. The problem is that the existing workforce isn’t equipped with the skills necessary for these emerging roles.

Right now, the manufacturing industry faces a major skills gap—one that will only widen in the next decade as the workforce struggles to keep up with further technological advances. According to the Manufacturing Institute, the manufacturing skills gap in the U.S. could result in 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030. But where do we find the much-needed manufacturing workers to keep us running? Naturally, the answer lies with those about to enter the workforce: our students.

In my previous role, I was a lecturer in the School of Engineering at the University of Warwick, where I was responsible for curriculum development and teaching mechanical engineering. I had the opportunity to work with bright young people at a pivotal time in their lives, just before they move from the classroom to the working world. The lessons that we teach and the skills that we build with them in this short time are the foundation for their careers and could mean the difference between them getting hired for their dream job or getting passed over for a more experienced worker.

At this crucial junction, educators have a powerful opportunity to equip students with real-world skills that they’ll use every day in their jobs. That’s why it is so important for us to understand what the most valuable skills are now, and what they will be in the future. In a new research project conducted by the American Society of Manufacturing Engineers (ASME), academics and industry professionals came together to forecast how manufacturing roles will evolve in the next decade and what those crucial, must-have skills will be.

Among the research findings, there was a strong chorus of support for growing students’ design for manufacturing knowledge and skills, with 90 percent of respondents believing this topic is the most impactful way for academia to develop the future manufacturing workforce. In addition to this core skillset, academics and industry professionals are looking toward the future with shared interest in emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and 3D printing. These new technologies are not only fascinating to students, but researchers also found these skills will only grow in importance and application over the next decade.

While these insights are compelling, they also expose the delta between where the industry is heading and the current topics of academic curricula. With business pressures driving manufacturing to increase efficiency, productivity, and sustainability, academia will have to align with these trends as soon as they can to keep up with the job market.

As a former educator, I empathize with the complexity of the task at hand. I saw firsthand the challenges facing manufacturing education. Educators are tasked with preparing students for emerging technologies while still teaching the underpinning foundational concepts and meeting accreditation standards, all within the same time parameters.

Fortunately, this research captured some bright spots and promising recommendations for educators. For example, respondents agree on the need for business leaders to support the education sector with curriculum development. Among academics surveyed, 80 percent would even like to see industry executives deployed as faculty. There is also interest in reducing ‘time-to-talent’ by leveraging real-world contexts, with 90 percent of academics agreeing that they must incorporate practical, hands-on learning opportunities for students to fully grasp design for manufacturing skills.

One of the datapoints I found encouraging was that 86 percent of academics surveyed embrace less reliance on traditional degrees and welcome more specialized certifications developed in partnership with industry. Generally, extended learning activities like credentialing are relegated to a student’s free time outside of the academic schedule, but not every student has the time or awareness to pursue these opportunities—opportunities that could help give them a leg up in the job market. That’s why I’m excited to see other educators embrace the prospect of integrating these certifications into their existing curriculum and giving students a head start to developing the skills that employers are actively seeking right now.

To further support the idea of supplemental learning, 84 percent of all survey respondents believe employers and academia should partner on new types of certification programs based on employer needs, and 91 percent want new opportunities for long-term internships and co-op programs. I hope that this interest in collaboration manifests in greater depth and breadth of academic and industry partnerships. 

The role of preparing students for their careers is a difficult task for academics, but they don’t have to do it alone. Hard-working educators can lean on their manufacturing industry colleagues for support in curriculum development, skill-building, onsite-learning, and career-training to foster brighter job prospects for students and help alleviate the numerous pressures that weigh on a post-secondary educator. Equipped with the rights skills, our students can find meaningful, rewarding careers where they are poised to solve today’s problems and forge tomorrow’s innovations.

About the Author:

Simon Leigh is Senior Manager of Design & Manufacturing Education Strategy at Autodesk and former lecturer in the School of Engineering at the University of Warwick. In his current role with Autodesk, he oversees strategy and thought leadership in the global design and manufacturing education sector.

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