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Not Your Grandfather’s Factories

It's not easy for manufacturing to attract the younger, skilled workers that it needs. We need to focus on both the educational pipeline and public perceptions.

For much of the past 30 years, the American public's view of manufacturing has been unrelentingly grim: shuttered factories, laid-off workers and the steady disappearance of "Made in America" products from consumers' shelves.

But U.S. manufacturing is showing strong signs of rebirth. Since the end of 2010, U.S. manufacturers have added more than 730,000 jobs, and industry analysts predict that the sector could see as many as three million new job openings over the next 10 years.

Now, however, American manufacturers are dealing with another kind of bad news: Even as industry's prospects have recovered, its image has not. Americans still think of factory jobs as dirty, dangerous and offering little job security.

As a result, millions of young Americans are potentially snubbing a promising career path in an industry poised for a renaissance. Absent a dramatic and rapid makeover of not only public perceptions but also the educational pipeline that manufacturers depend on, the sector's looming worker shortage is severe enough to short-circuit both its own rebound and its contributions to overall growth.

A new report by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute finds that American manufacturers could face a deficit of as many as 2 million workers over the next decade, fueled in part by industry expansion but also by the looming retirement of the Baby Boomers.

These jobs are both highly skilled and well paid. "Nearly all of the jobs that were unskilled or semi-skilled have either been automated out of existence or moved offshore in search of cheaper labor," says the Manufacturing Institute's Gardner Carrick. Today's factory jobs, he says, are focused on "operating, maintaining or programming the machines that are doing a lot of the actual manual labor and hard work that used to be done by human beings."

This means the vast majority of manufacturing jobs today require some sort of post-secondary degree or technical credential. It's an investment that pays off: In 2013, according to the National Association of Manufacturers, the average manufacturing worker earned $77,506 in total pay and benefits. Yet surveys by the Manufacturing Institute find that only one-third of parents would encourage their children to work in manufacturing and that a majority of teens have no interest in it as a career.

The onus of solving manufacturing's recruitment problems lies, of course, principally with industry. To that end, manufacturers have recently launched an annual effort -- Manufacturing Day -- to show young Americans first-hand what today's manufacturing jobs are like. In 2014, the initiative involved more than 400,000 participants at events across the country, including an appearance by President Obama at an Indiana steel facility's open house.

But even if interest in manufacturing careers rekindles among students, they'll still need the right skills and training to land a job. That's why state and local policy-makers should be working to rebuild the educational infrastructure that withered when manufacturing collapsed.

The best way to do this is to revive, modernize and encourage career and technical education (CTE) at both the high-school and post-secondary level, which a number of states have already begun to re-embrace. Kansas, for example, now pays tuition for high school students enrolled in college-level career and technical education classes. The state also offers high schools a variety of incentives to encourage CTE, including paying the transportation costs of high-schoolers attending classes at a college or career and technical institute, subsidizing the cost of credential assessment, and even offering financial rewards to students graduating with an industry-recognized credential.

Another promising initiative is Tennessee's "Drive to 55," a statewide effort to increase the share of residents with post-secondary credentials to 55 percent from the current level of 32 percent. One aspect of the program, Tennessee Promise, gained national prominence as the model for President Obama's free community college proposal. Other states have embraced apprenticeship as a way to draw millennials and other young workers to manufacturing.

Unlike old-fashioned "vo-tech" programs that may have served as an outlet for students deemed unready or unsuited for college, the best of today's CTE programs combine post-secondary education with industry-recognized credentialing. Pennsylvania's Lehigh Career and Technical Institute, for example, is one of a growing number of schools that specialize in providing students with both academic and industry-recognized credentials.

For many millennials still struggling to find their way post-recession, manufacturing's nascent revival offers a potentially ideal path for rebuilding their economic fortunes. And for manufacturers, the talents of the millennial generation and beyond are critical to sustaining its rebirth. But to broker this marriage between manufacturing and millennials, the role of government will be vital.

Vice President of Domestic Policy at the Progressive Policy Institute
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