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First Person: “New Collar” Workers Needed to Support Manufacturing

Support for fab labs in high schools, trade schools, and community colleges will increase the number of workers with the skills manufacturers want, thereby creating a “new collar” workforce.

Q3 2018
AD: How would you define the “new collar” workforce?

Boisvert: Blue-collar jobs have become digital, and new collar workers utilize innovative digital technologies such as 3D printing, CAD design, artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics to produce advanced manufacturing products such as electric cars, microfluidic devices, autonomous vehicles, and drones. While new collar jobs can exist in any industry, they are mostly found in smart manufacturing for Industry 4.0 that integrates the biological, physical, and digital worlds.

AD: What prompted you to undertake the research on the new collar workforce?

Boisvert: Fab Labs at community colleges in the U.S. were asking me to help develop curriculum for workforce training. I wanted to understand exactly what smart manufacturing skills for Industry 4.0 were required by industry so that we could accurately address their needs. As is often the case in market research, the results were surprising and shaped my ideas for training programs.

AD: You interviewed more than 200 manufacturing executives about the skills gap. What were the most significant results from your research and surveys?

Boisvert: The skills gap is immediate. One interviewee told me that engineers are now a dime a dozen in many specialties, but finding a good digital machinist is next to impossible. In order to meet smart manufacturing’s demand for workers, I realized I needed to develop training programs that were skill-specific, short in duration, and affordable.

The digital badge platform developed by IBM and Mozilla is a perfect solution. Working with employers, Fab Lab Hub designed digital badges for new collar jobs that could be combined into master badges for such positions as 3D printing operator, CAD designer, predictive analyst, or laser service technician. The digital badges combine coursework with projects in Fab Labs, to meet employer needs for problem-solving and hands-on experience. The online certification platform documents the student’s activities in identifying the problem, creating a solution, and iterating the process through photos, videos, and other online tools. Digital badges not only certify accomplishment of a skill, they also give the employers an opportunity to see first-hand the student’s problem-solving skills.

AD: What were the most surprising results?

I expected more specific technical skills to be named by manufacturers in the survey. Surprisingly, the top skill 95 percent of the respondents cited was problem-solving. With technologies evolving at a rapid pace, new collar workers need to be able to quickly add new tools to the factory floor, successfully integrating them into traditional processes. Like everywhere else in today’s life, speed is essential for smart manufacturing, so delays cut right to the bottom line.

Hands-on experience was a close second, and as I put these two skills together, I realized they are exactly what we teach in Fab Labs, which center around project-based learning utilizing digital fabrication tools like laser cutters, CNC machines, 3D printing, and CAD design. It seemed obvious that I needed to look at a new type of education model that combined project-based learning and hands-on experience in order to train the new collar worker in the skills the manufacturing industry demanded.

With more than 30 years of experience in the design, development, and commercialization of high-technology products utilizing digital fabrication methods, including laser machining and 3D printing, Sarah Boisvert has a deep knowledge of manufacturing.
AD: What are some of the most needed new collar positions? What are the job descriptions?

Operating and repairing 3D printers requires a new skill set that is rapidly changing. Since production machines have not been tried and tested for decades like subtractive tools, a large part of the job involves problem-solving machine operation issues.

Despite R&D in artificial intelligence and the promise of “machines that make machines,” at the moment robotics and automation technology still require humans to design, program, monitor, and yes, repair co-bots. Recently at a Society of Manufacturing Engineers conference and trade show, I met a young man in the exhibit booth of a robotics company. His entire job revolved around keeping the robots up and running. For any kid who has had fun participating in FIRST robotics competitions, this is a dream job that is just an extension of play.

The 2016 Global Manufacturing Competitiveness Index compiled by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Ltd. and the U.S. Council on Competitiveness reported that, for both China and the United States, predictive analytics ranked as the most important technology for global competitive advantage. While the robots turn the screws and do other repetitive and boring tasks, it is the human ability to decipher big data and stay ahead of the machines that makes the difference in digital factories.

AD: How should manufacturers start developing a new collar workforce? What are the best ways they can be proactive?

Boisvert: Manufacturers need to immediately support creating programs in fab labs and maker spaces as well as at community colleges. Funding non-profits that supplement traditional education is key to growing a thriving community of young people who aspire to work in manufacturing. So are apprenticeships — anything that provides a hands-on component is vital to building the new collar workforce. While apprenticeships result in a more experienced worker, at the moment there is little time to waste in getting people onto the factory floor with basic skills.

AD: If manufacturers get serious about building the new collar workforce, how much of a dent will it make in the skills gap?

Boisvert: For 2025, which is only a few years away, companies need to support a transition in community colleges and trade schools to new innovative training programs that are skill-specific. Also, sending current employees for digital badges will enhance in-house skills. If started now, support for fab labs in high schools, trade schools, and community colleges will increase the number of workers with the skills manufacturers want. It is especially important to fund training programs for teachers so that they can embrace innovative and very different models. We have to start to think progressively if we want to close the skills gap and capture a place in manufacturing’s future. Those who don’t will be left behind.

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