First Person: Education and Perception Struggle to Keep Up with Modern Manufacturing
Dr. David B. Williams is Executive Dean of the Professional Colleges and Dean of The College of Engineering at The Ohio State University. As part of his role, he serves on the board of Columbus 2020, Central Ohio’s economic development organization, and is a regular participant in meetings with companies considering the area for expansion. Dr. Williams spoke recently with Area Development on the subjects of higher education and workforce development.
Williams: Depends on which politician you speak to, I guess! Part of the challenge is the skills gap changes every several years. As new manufacturing processes come on board, there’s a need for a new set of technical skills. Five years ago, additive manufacturing was a curiosity. Now GE builds whole engines out of additive manufacturing. There’s an additive manufacturing operation on the International Space Station, and they’re talking about sending one to Mars to build the first habitation on Mars. So, there’s a whole new way of making things that didn’t exist five years ago.
AD: So, for four-year engineering colleges and, for that matter, two-year technical schools, how much should we be getting into those particular skills — or should we be taking a broader approach?
Williams: I think there’s a balance between knowing the fundamentals, which are often quite detailed, and knowing enough to be able to apply those fundamentals in a totally new situation. And I think the same would happen to skills from two-year community colleges and vocational training organizations. Additive manufacturing is new. The robotic aspects of it are probably not too fundamentally different from robotic welding, which has been around for 20 years. The scale is different, the speed is different, the source of material is different, but you’re still welding materials to one another, just on a much more controlled scale. So, understanding the fundamentals, but then being able to apply them in a new situation would work for a robotic technician as well as somebody pushing the limits of how we make the next complicated device with an additive manufacturing approach.
AD: Education and industry — what responsibility does each have in developing the workforce needed and how are they connected?
Williams: Industry goes ahead and uses the next generation of technology because it will go to its own bottom line. It will, perhaps, improve quality without raising expense, or it will improve turnover without the challenges and inaccuracies of human beings. And then, they worry about the workforce that’s required to maintain what they’ve put in place. That’s not a criticism; that’s just what drives industry. I think the role of universities is to give industry the tools they need so that they can manufacture products more reliably, perhaps cheaper, with better materials, in a shorter time, less waste, more environmentally friendly — all the issues that drive modern manufacturing. And then, uh-oh, where’s the workforce to do that? So, in some senses, maybe universities are part of the problem!
AD: Are the students you meet looking to manufacturing for a career, or have we undersold manufacturing over the years? Are people stuck with old visions of what manufacturing is? Anybody who actually goes to a modern manufacturing plant is rapidly disabused of the notion that it’s anything like it used to be.
Williams: Yes, yes, and yes! We can’t change the word. The Latin roots mean “hand-made.” The Midwest is still termed “The Rust Belt,” even though we haven’t made steel for a generation.
AD: Do manufacturers need to take responsibility to get kids into their plants and have them understand this is a new, clean, different technological environment?
Williams: Perhaps the bigger challenge, in many cases, is the parents of the upcoming generation. Many of those parents came from areas in Ohio and the Midwest where old manufacturing has disappeared and the communities are paying the consequences. They don’t wish their daughter to become a welding engineer because they think she’s becoming a welder when, in fact, what she’s doing is helping Elon Musk build his next generation of spacecraft, which needs materials to be joined, which is what a welding engineer would figure out. Anybody who actually goes to a modern manufacturing plant is rapidly disabused of the notion that it’s anything like it used to be. Five years ago, additive manufacturing was a curiosity. Now GE builds whole engines out of additive manufacturing.
AD: What about soft skills?
Williams: Very important. And, yes, we focus on them in freshman year — teamwork, oral communication, written communication. The challenge always is, for every class where we introduce a new soft skill, which part of the fundamentals of engineering do we decide not to teach? Because we are constrained politically and fiscally to a four-year engineering program, while the engineering knowledge a starting engineer needs isn’t getting any less on a weekly or a yearly basis. There’s no right answer here.
AD: How do you see the roles of four-year institutions like Ohio State versus community colleges, tech schools, vocational schools? Do you think students understand the difference between these various levels and career paths?
Williams: Not necessarily, and neither do their parents — and, in many cases, neither do university professors! There are many, many sound reasons why an 18-year-old young man or woman should go to a community college. Unfortunately, society has deemed that the four-year college education is something that everybody needs, and without which, you are a failure. This is the wrong message to send. There are multiple essential areas where a two-year community college education will give you a skill set that’s extraordinarily valuable and that people will pay to use.
AD: Do we need to drop the silos and find ways to blend these assets so that we have a more seamless system?
Williams: As I say, there are many positions where somebody should go to a community college and get their two-year associate degree. They’ll be in a much better position to get a job than many four-year college graduates. But again, that message isn’t going out there. So, I think there’s a lot more selling to be done about the value of the two-year system. Part of the challenge is, however, the degree completion rate for young men and women in the two-year system is not really very good. That might be a combination of family backgrounds, fiscal backgrounds, understanding the need to study hard in community colleges as well as at four-year universities.
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