Education: The Future of Manufacturing

There is a lot of talk about the future of manufacturing in North America, and it is possible to make a compelling argument about the prognosis on either side. However, underlying the success of any operation, even the most automated, are skilled people. Ron Wanek, Chairman of The Ashley Companies (see page 14), recently remarked that one of the challenges facing North American manufacturing is the shortage of people with credentials in math or engineering entering the workforce.

While there are a multitude of factors that impact the success of domestic manufacturing in a global economy, Wanek makes a very good point. Manufacturing increasingly relies on the type of technological know-how that does not come with a BA.

Manufacturers today are called upon to understand and work within complex parameters of regulation, finance and market preference where they have little, if any, influence. However, there is one area where professionals can definitively, and positively, affect the future of domestic manufacturing. Education. The future of manufacturing in the most general sense is going to rely on trained managers and industry leaders. People who understand the technology are as vital as those who navigate the business end of manufacturing (regulations, financials, logistics and market). Often, such as with Burke Gibson (see page 20), the most successful project managers understand both sides of the operation. As is the case with any value-added product, those human resources can either be cultivated domestically or acquired off-shore. While international partnerships can be very beneficial, it is crucial to domestic manufacturing that both people and production resources also have a physical presence in North America. Without that presence, manufacturers become middlemen.

PARTNERSHIPS

Within the woodworking and panel-processing industry WoodLINKS® USA, a not- for-profit organization supported through voluntary donations from business and other organizations within the wood working industry*, is working to develop industry and education partnerships. The theory behind WoodLINKS® USA is that the wood industry and a public education system – a high school or a technical school – work together to deliver a wood manufacturing education program that meets the direct-entry skilled worker needs of a local wood industry profile. This way, supporting companies can assist in the development of the local program and can recruit the skilled workers they need to become more competitive. Many of the students that participate in the program go on to related course work at the college or university level.

WoodLINKS® USA encourages a cooperative big-brother approach between the industry and the education system. Individual companies support the local program by providing advice, encouragement, materials and opening doors to make students and teachers aware of the technologies and processes being used today.

CREDENTIALS

Many of the most brilliant minds in the industry left academia after high school. Their expertise comes from accrued experience, not credit hours. In fact, it is not uncommon for individuals with a strong natural tendency towards mechanics and technology to struggle in a conventional classroom setting. The challenge then is how to communicate skills so that experienced woodworkers and manufacturers can connect. To address this WoodLINKS USA® is partnering with the Woodwork Career Alliance of North America and Skills USA.

The WCA's major undertaking is the development and publication of industry-approved Standards of Tool Skills and Evaluations to serve as a comprehensive, industry-accepted compilation of operational procedures to measure performance and results produced by woodworking professionals. It includes a voluntary assessment program that allows woodworkers to demonstrate their competency in in-plant woodworking skills.

WCA's national Passport and Credentialing Program provides a portable credential for individuals in the woodwork industry to quantify and qualify their ability to operate woodwork tools properly and safely to create high quality wood products. Woodworkers' skills are assessed by a WCA Skill Evaluator who observes the candidate as he/she uses a tool and then inspect the final product, ensuring that the woodworker's technique and product complies with WCA standards. Skill Evaluators record and submit their evaluations to WCA electronically and issue the appropriate stamp in the Woodwork Passport. The Program is being rolled out in many states and provinces, and will be fully operational in 2013.

GET INVOLVED

There is no quick, easy way to strengthen manufacturing domestically, but a solid educational foundation in industry is certainly a step in the right direction. Both WoodLINKS® USA and the WCA rely on industry participation and support. For more information on the programs, go to the websites below. And be sure to visit WoodLINKS® USA at IWF 2012, where the IWF Board of Directors has generously furnished floor space to host WoodLINKS® student RTA contest.