Written by Mark C. Perna
Founder and CEO TFSResults.com
In Connecticut, manufacturing is a significant player in the economy—bringing 161,000 jobs, $14.9 billion in wages, and $123 million in corporate income tax to the state. It's too big to fail, but the state's manufacturing training structures have atrophied.
Around 1980, high school machining and other manufacturing programs started falling by the wayside as parents and educators increasingly embraced a "college for all" mindset. With no students seeking those critical skills, schools reoriented their resources elsewhere.
This all turned around in 2010 when the state realized the pressing need to invest in manufacturing training. In Connecticut alone, the manufacturing sector needs to fill 6,000–8,000 positions every year to keep up with attrition. Thirty-five percent of the state's manufacturing workforce is 55 years old or older, and this is also the highest-skilled segment of the workforce—and they're retiring in droves.
Colin Cooper, the state's first-ever chief manufacturing officer, sees the impending silver tsunami with clarity.
If we don't fill demand, it will go somewhere else and be tough to get back."
Cooper's role is to help promote a sustainable talent pipeline, attract new manufacturers to the state, and support those already there.
To do this, he must reach two critical audiences: young people who will become the future workforce and their parents who will influence their career choices. But there are major hurdles, not least of which is the ongoing perception of manufacturing as a dirty, low-paid, low-skilled field—as a job rather than a career.
Manufacturing has changed—and fast
With the best intentions in the world, parents and teachers have steered young people away from careers in advanced manufacturing. It's understandable, given the persistent stigmas that dog this industry. And yet today, nothing could be further from the truth.
With the advent of more advanced technology, robotics, and streamlined manufacturing processes, low-skilled positions in manufacturing have all but disappeared. Gone are the grubby factories of the past; today, manufacturing is a high-precision field with the high-tech facilities to match.
There's still a perception that manufacturing is dirty and loud and messy, and that's just not the case. If you go into most of our manufacturing facilities now in the state, they're clean, well organized, and just chock full of high-tech equipment.
Today, manufacturing is a high-precision field with the high-tech facilities to match. CLICK TO TWEET
To run a modern manufacturing facility, high- and medium-skilled workers are in increasing demand. Manufacturers must fill these positions to stay competitive in the global market. But no one seems to know about these high-paying opportunities, as fully 89% of the state's manufacturers say that recruiting skilled workers is their greatest challenge.
Roughly 9,000 students graduate high school every year in Connecticut but do not go to college or the military. "This is a 'river of talent' coming out of our comprehensive high schools," says Cooper. "Through CTECS and other initiatives, we're working hard to provide manufacturing training opportunities to those folks. We do this by putting resources into the technical high schools and investing in a network of nine advanced manufacturing centers in various community colleges around the state."
It's a start. Time will tell if it's enough.
What about Covid-19?
Like almost every other industry, manufacturing felt the effects of the nationwide shutdowns because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Cooper, however, is optimistic. "It's not as dire as I thought it would be," he says. "There's a lot of uncertainty right now, but the long-term trends are still intact."
Of course, this is both good news and bad: good because manufacturing will rebound, but bad because Connecticut (and probably the rest of the country) are still facing an aging workforce that is exiting the workplace and taking their hard-earned skills with them.
The difference between a job and a career
Parents and educators aren't altogether to blame for not knowing what they don't know about manufacturing. Over the last decade, the industry has transformed itself—a seismic shift, both rapid and dramatic. Kids don't know about the opportunities because their parents and teachers don't.
But it's time for that to change.
Manufacturing is no longer just a job. "a job" describes work that feels like drudgery or a dead end for most people. You do it to pay the bills, but you're gone as soon as you find something better.
But today, manufacturing can be a true career. In this field, it can challenge young people as they literally invent, produce and distribute the everyday items and technologies of the future. High-tech work requires compensated high-level skills, and there are endless opportunities to grow in their professional and technical competency.
Forget the outdated stigmas; advanced manufacturing is a field to be proud of. It's not a job—it's a career. And the sooner young people can see it, the better.
About the Author
Mark C. Perna is an international generational expert, weekly Forbes.com contributor, and podcast host. His keynotes have received over 1,000 standing ovations, and today he delivers 70+ in-person and virtual presentations annually. He is the founder and CEO of TFS Results, a full-service strategic consulting firm at the forefront of the national paradigm shift in education and workforce development. Mark, who serves on the Advisory Council for the Coalition for Career Development in Washington, DC, founded the Education with Purpose & Employment with Passion movement to help communities connect education, business, and economic pipelines.