Education needs to adapt to changing landscape
Manufacturing is the economic engine for many communities across South Carolina. From the Upstate to the Lowcountry, the state’s workers are putting cars on the road and planes in the air.
For many workers, the jobs that come with a robust manufacturing sector make the difference between barely getting by and getting a ticket to the middle class. Even entry-level work at some advanced-manufacturing companies pays $50,000 a year.
But manufacturing jobs are no longer what they used to be. The days of dirty, dimly lit shop floors are gone. Everything is high-tech now. Brains are more valued than brawn. As the landscape shifts, four letters will be key to taking manufacturing to the next level.
That stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Manufacturers are demanding more of it, and our education system should adapt.
The shift to high-tech manufacturing comes with advantages, including higher pay and more satisfying work. And the emphasis on advanced manufacturing means fewer jobs can be outsourced because no other country has a workforce as skilled as does the United States.
But the shift also brings new challenges. Global competition and new technology have hit some segments of the workforce especially hard. Workers who end their education at high school or even earlier face slim pickings in the hunt for jobs that pay decently. At the same time, manufacturers tell us that a growing need for qualified technicians has left some jobs open for months.
To ensure that the nation retains its competitive edge, we need to bridge the “skills gap.” The good news is the Internet is opening doors that didn’t exist 15 or 20 years ago. Prospective students needn’t be held back by work schedules, family obligations or lack of transportation.
With the right curriculum, students can study in a place and time of their choosing. Several high-quality programs are already available through high schools and technical colleges in South Carolina and across the country. They teach basic skills, such as maintenance and safety, that students will need to get a job in a modern manufacturing plant.
Some participants may choose to go directly into the workforce, while others may decide to further their education with a degree in engineering or science. Either way, it’s a terrific pathway into a rapidly changing workforce.
Virtual reality is also opening some exciting possibilities in education. Some of the technology’s deepest roots are in the gaming community, but the biggest impact could be on teaching workers the skills they need for high-tech manufacturing.
Virtual reality helps reinforce textbook lessons and can even show students how to avoid mistakes that could be lethal in real life. Simulations range from how an injection-molding machine works to removing a battery from a hybrid car.
The simulations are spreading to high schools and technical colleges across the country as the falling cost of technology lowers the barrier to participate. Many simulations can be done on standard laptop and desktop computers. But to make them even more eye-popping, simulations can also be designed for the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.
One simulation that we’ve found works particularly well with the Oculus Rift puts students in the role of an auditor. Students can hear the bangs and clangs of a factory as they navigate the plant from a first-person viewpoint, searching for safety violations. It’s a great way to hold a student’s attention.
While education targeted to adults will solve our short-term needs, we believe that we also need to prepare the youth for next-generation jobs. It can start with students even before they enter kindergarten.
Smells can teach students about chemicals. Crushing a soda can be a lesson in air pressure. Having students form a “boomwhacker band” by banging together hollow tubes is a fun way to learn about vibrations. To the students, it may seem like magic at first. But then they learn the science and pre-engineering concepts behind it.
The wheels are in motion to take manufacturing to the next level in South Carolina and nationwide. But we need to keep the momentum going forward. It is imperative that we break down the silos that have traditionally separated the P-12 system, industry and higher education. Combining our efforts helps get resources into the hands of the teachers who need them to develop a highly qualified workforce.
Manufacturing remains key to prosperity in our state and across the nation. By teaching the skills needed in the next-generation workforce, we will shore up the middle class and put families on the road to success.