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Thoughts on workforce development strategies

Few people have a better grasp of the challenges faced by U.S. manufacturers when it comes to workforce development as it relates specifically to manufacturing than Keith Campbell, a regular blogger and occasional contributor not only to this space but also to the pages of Packaging World. Here’s what he had to say in his most recent blog.

My greatest surprise regarding the Manufacturing Workforce Development Playbook- Preparing for a Manufacturing Renaissance in America has been that 23% of the book's 3500 downloads have occurred in 95 countries beyond the United States. This is indicative of the fact that preparing workers for high-skill, well-paying, economy-building, manufacturing jobs is a global issue.

US companies seem to have lost the desire or the ability to train their own workers through internal training programs or apprenticeships. Current best practice comes from collaboration between a limited number of employers and community colleges that provide work-based learning opportunities in manufacturing. Many German companies, however, have continued their tradition of work-based learning wherever they go around the world. Indeed, some of the best US community college programs have come about through collaboration with German employers.

One example of a German company focusing upon international workforce development came through my inbox this month. Krones, known for its filling, packaging and container products for the beverage industry, was presented an award for its social commitment in China. The citation focused upon Krones' apprenticeship training program that offers courses for mechatronics technicians and metal-cutting machine operators. Survey after survey has shown that these are the two most in-demand manufacturing occupations in America, yet few schools are offering mechatronics programs and more metal-cutting programs are being closed down than are being created.

The press release goes on to say; "Krones is fostering the tradition of vocational training in China as a way of assuring top-quality work in the production operations, enhancing bonding between the trainees and the company, and creating a culture of mutual trust. Almost 40 new staff have been given a permanent job since the program was launched in Wuhan. Vocational training has meanwhile also begun in the cities of Changzhou and Suzhou, which will result in many more hirings.”

My curiosity over this took me to the Krones website, which was enlightening regarding workforce development. The first thing I noticed was the distribution of educational attainment of the approximately 14,000 individuals employed by the company. While one company does not reflect an entire economy, the numbers are striking. They are compatible with those cited in the Playbook, and the numbers show that the narrative about education in the United States has been dramatically flawed for political gain. At Krones, 19% of employees hold a university degree, 25% are classified "commercial specialists/technicians/master craftsmen,” and 56% have "qualified professional training.” These numbers don't match exactly, but they correspond reasonably well to the numbers in Chapter 10 of the Playbook, which affirms that 20% of jobs require a university degree and 70% require a one-year certificate or two-year degree. A reasonable interpretation of the Krones numbers to the US system would be 19% Bachelor Degrees, 25% Associate Degrees, and 56% high school or post-high school certification. Why then, are we in the US hearing all the rhetoric about free college for everyone?

The second thing that struck me on the Krones website was the commitment to training. Under the heading "Krones grows its own talent" it said; "Krones offers a strong in-house training program to draw qualified young recruits. The company provides appealing options for motivated young people who begin their careers with Krones through vocational training, internships, or graduate theses." Note that there is no mention of apprenticeship, a term which has been often mis-applied as it has been translated from German to English. Notice also that there is emphasis on three levels of education. The website goes on to explain that there are seminars, classes, and e-learning opportunities available to employees covering more than 450 topics.

The third thing that struck me is that one of the pathways featured in detail on the website is that of Krones Automation Engineer (KAE). While mechatronics technicians and CNC machine operators are the two most in-demand occupations corresponding to an Associate's Degree, automation engineer is arguably the most in-demand manufacturing occupation corresponding to a Bachelor's Degree. The pathway to becoming a KAE involves completion of 12 stacked courses, organized into 3 levels. Each course involves a certification exam that any visitor to the website may complete online based upon their previous skill development, without having to complete the corresponding coursework. These courses involve technical fundamentals; basic electrical systems; Siemens, Rockwell, and B&R controls; IT systems; visualization systems; MES systems; safety systems; and similar technical topics. While the technical content is customized to Krones' needs, the methodology employed is precisely that described in the Playbook and that being implemented by PMMI for development and certification of mechatronics technicians and mechatronics design engineers.

The process of developing a skilled manufacturing workforce, enabling a company or an economy to thrive, is not magic. It does not require knowledge, skills, curriculum, equipment or processes that are unavailable to us. It only requires the will to proceed and the willingness to collaborate. In China, a German company has been recognized for its will and willingness. This is a winning formula. How about here?

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