Year-in-Review: Major Strides in Manufacturing Workforce Development

January 05, 2024
  • Jeannine Kuntz
    By Jeannine Kunz
    Chief Workforce Development Officer
    Tooling U-SME

As we head into the new year, I keep reflecting on SME’s action-packed 2023. In many ways last year felt like the first completely normal year since the beginning of the pandemic. The industry was back out in person at conferences and events, sharing information and experiences, and discovering the latest technology to improve manufacturing operations.

One constant topic and area of concern—then and now—continues to be talent: how to attract, train and retain high performers. The SME team is fortunate to work with communities, employers and educators across the country on workforce development. The national talent crisis in manufacturing requires unprecedented collaboration, and we have always embodied collaboration as a core value. Now, more than ever, we are working hard to find like-minded partners to innovate, collaborate and accelerate effective solutions to take bolder steps towards greater impact.    

While we have some exciting things underway for 2024, we did create and launch some new and important programs in 2023 at SME.

Think Nationally, Act Locally

SME is a national non-profit spanning all things manufacturing while also heavily engaged with local manufacturing communities. For SME to make the biggest impact on a national challenge, we need to think nationally and act locally. We also need to see locally—and share and scale nationally. That means discovering local programs that are successful at building a strong workforce and determining how to bring them to other areas.

There are countless programs throughout the country showing excellent results, however, sometimes those programs are geographically bound to strictly serve a local area or don’t have the ability to scale nationally. These programs are helping reach existing and new audiences such as high school and college students, dislocated workers, under-employed individuals, transitioning military and veterans, at-risk youth and others who are seeking new employment in high-demand manufacturing jobs.

So much learning is available. We need to create the network so that those best practices are adopted by others and conversations happen. There is no time to waste. Manufacturing is a critical engine of North America’s economic growth and prosperity. The industry and nation are at risk if we don’t revitalize the industry’s industrial base, grow the talent pipeline, and enhance the skills and productivity of our workforce. 

At SME, we are focusing on actively bringing together partners to make this happen. As we have been involved in workforce development for decades, this is a natural imperative. The following are some of the new partnerships, programs and initiatives in 2023 and how we will continue to focus in 2024: 

The Manufacturing Imperative – Workforce Pipeline Challenge

This summer, SME announced a new initiative, The Manufacturing Imperative – Workforce Pipeline Challenge (MI-WPC), involving a partnership with 25 community and technical colleges to address the urgency of revitalizing manufacturing’s industrial base, growing the industry’s talent pipeline, and enhancing the skills and productivity of manufacturing workers. MI-WPC builds awareness of careers in manufacturing, optimizes workforce systems and accelerates the education and skill development needed to place individuals in jobs making family-sustaining wages. Each school has a goal of enrolling 1,000 individuals per year, with pathways that lead to jobs in manufacturing. This will have an immediate and positive impact on the industry with our collective three-year goal across the 25 schools to bring 75,000 more individuals into manufacturing.

Electrification Training & Certification: Electric Vehicles Fundamentals

Another exciting area of development for SME was the launch of Electrification Training & Certification to support the Electric Vehicle Manufacturing and Energy Storage industries. Electrification is now one of the fastest-growing industries in the world. Working with experts in manufacturing, engineering, product development, education, instructional design, and the Electric Vehicle industry, we developed a Body of Knowledge that encompasses the technologies, job roles, competencies, and skills critical to the Electrification industry. Our training roadmap provides learners with crucial knowledge in foundational manufacturing areas and then prepares them for a variety of industry roles by focusing on key Electrification topics. 

We also launched an industry recognized Electric Vehicle (EV) Fundamentals Certification. Based on the rising national demand, states are seeing the need to prepare for this emerging industry. As Brad Neese, vice president, South Carolina Technical College System – Division of Economic Development, said, “The success we envision as a state in the electric vehicle industry hinges not only on cutting-edge technology but also, and even more crucially, on developing a skilled workforce.” Our collaboration with manufacturers, schools, and workforce organizations will embed in-demand EV expertise and competencies into nationwide career development programs and technical education.

Smart Manufacturing

With our partners, we are working to accelerate the adoption of Smart Manufacturing while training the next generation of the manufacturing workforce. This culminated at SOUTHTEC as thousands joined us at our Smart Manufacturing Experience, which featured Tooling U-SME’s first Workforce Day, CESMII Smart Manufacturing Experience Pavilion and Manufacturing USA’s Modern Makers. The event provided an unprecedented opportunity to connect and engage with leading voices and industry experts in the transformative technologies and innovative solutions that are reshaping manufacturing processes.

Also, at SOUTHTEC, the Smart Manufacturing Executive Council was able to meet face-to-face for the first time. We took this in-person opportunity to delve into how we can accelerate the transformation and democratization of the Smart Manufacturing ecosystem and jumpstart productivity. It’s the charter of this Smart Manufacturing Executive Council, created by CESMII and SME to advocate for this transformation, and the practical steps, investments, and policy recommendations to advance the ecosystem. This was an invigorating conversation, focused on opportunity solving.

Additionally, CESMII and SME launched a Fundamentals of Smart Manufacturing learning curriculum for building awareness and educating the workforce around newly available Smart Manufacturing processes and technologies. By working together, the program validates and deploys a common foundation of knowledge for advancing industry’s progress through a Smart Manufacturing transformation.

Cybersecurity Training Program

As cyberattacks grow increasingly sophisticated, organizations and their employees must understand how to raise awareness and take actionable, preventative measures to protect against the new vulnerabilities. SME partnered with CyManII to deliver cybersecurity training for manufacturers. Our vision, as two nonprofit organizations, includes a focus on securing manufacturers from threats by equipping the industry with the necessary cybersecurity skills.

New National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Report

I encourage you to review a new report, "Options for a National Plan for Smart Manufacturing,” from The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). For the last year, I had the privilege of working with a group of committed leaders on the NASEM Committee on Smart Manufacturing. We spent considerable time working together to understand the prevailing issues and provide strategic and unified recommendations for action to accelerate the adoption of Smart Manufacturing. You will find these recommendations outlined in the report addressing technology, talent and the ecosystem. Technology and talent go hand in hand, and to fully embrace Smart Manufacturing, we must invest, not only in technology, but in our leadership, culture, and workforce. Many thanks to my fellow committee members, especially our Chair, Dr. Thomas Kurfess, along with CESMII and SME’s Smart Manufacturing Executive Council of employers, the NASEM team and the study's sponsor - the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) who all worked tirelessly on this report.

AMT Partnership

This fall, we announced a strategic partnership with AMT – The Association For Manufacturing Technology, making bigger strides together toward solving North America’s manufacturing workforce challenge. SME and AMT have been longtime collaborators on advancing manufacturing, and this partnership focuses on leveraging the strengths and resources of each organization for the betterment and advancement of the industry through three key areas: workforce development, educational products and services and student events. AMT’s education products and services will now be owned and operated by SME, which will leverage the existing strength and industry leadership of Tooling U-SME. Both organizations recognized the opportunity to incorporate AMT’s education products and services into the expansive learning and development solutions of Tooling U-SME. This provides manufacturers with greater value through one access point to a larger and more integrated solution to meet their needs. We are especially looking forward to next year’s IMTS – The International Manufacturing Technology Show, where we will convene the Smartforce Student Summit, dedicated to showcasing the manufacturing technology classroom of the future to educators and students through an engaging, hands-on, and memorable experience. 

Recent Awards

I am also humbled and appreciative of the awards SME has received due to the innovative thinking, hard work and dedication of our partners and staff.

To start, Tooling U-SME was named one of the 32 winners in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) AI Tools Competition, one of the largest education technology (edtech) competitions globally. The competition recognizes outstanding achievements in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) and adult learning. Tooling U-SME’s winning entry, the Personalized Skills Empowerment Passport (PSEP) was developed in collaboration with SkyHive. PSEP harnesses the power of AI to create customized skills and career pathways for participants by connecting individuals to Tooling U-SME's training content, aligning their learning with evolving industry requirements and real-time labor market analytics. I’m proud of the team for their continued innovative efforts in workforce development.

In other good news, Goodwill of Western Missouri & Eastern Kansas recently awarded Tooling U-SME the Bob Smart Legacy Award. By partnering with Goodwill, we are able to offer manufacturing-based educational opportunities, like the Certified Manufacturing Associate (CMfgA) program, to give participants with disadvantages the opportunity to learn entry-level manufacturing skills. You can hear from SME’s Gretchen Schultz, director of workforce development, and learn about the program through this short video.

Also, I was honored to join my fellow colleagues presented with an ARM Champion Award at the ARM Institute’s Annual Members Meeting. With 400+ industry leaders in attendance, it is encouraging for the industry to come together supporting ARM and its mission to accelerate the adoption of robotics and automation.

The Power of Collaboration

We accomplished a lot in 2023. Yet it is critical that we continue the momentum in 2024 if we are going to have an impact on the large scale and urgent challenges that face us in the manufacturing industry.

I predict that 2024 will continue to demonstrate the power of collaboration to address the national talent crisis. We must continue to join together; the consequences of not responding to these challenges are too dire.

As I close, I would like to thank the SME Board of Directors, members, and staff as well as our networks of partners who are engaged and passionate about transforming and strengthening the manufacturing industry. I am incredibly fortunate to always get the opportunity to learn more, meet interesting and brilliant people and contribute to a mission I am passionate about addressing. 

In my 20+ years in the industry, I have never seen such an openness to collaboration and willingness to think differently about how we can advance both technology adoption and talent development smarter and faster.

I am excited about what is ahead.

Happy New Year!

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