Innovation in manufacturing: More than just new technology

adultshuddleThe demands on today’s workforce are quite different than a decade ago. This is no truer for U.S. manufacturing than other sectors of our economy. However, manufacturing–unlike other industry segments–has had to quickly learn that competitiveness is more than keeping pace with changes on the “factory floor.” To remain competitive, businesses must also ensure that the “front office” is equally prepared to successfully manage business operations against adaptive supply chains, new technologies, and shifting market demands.

Across all industries, U.S. executives and plant managers report that a skilled, educated workforce is the single most critical–and hardest to acquire–element to the success of their business.  The portability and mobility of today’s workforce compounds this problem but also offers an opportunity to employers prepared to be nimble, innovative, and responsive to change.

U.S. manufacturers, employing more than 12 million Americans and supporting an additional 5 million jobs in related industries, are already way ahead of many others in this regard. Manufacturers have begun to link professional education, skills acquisition, and workforce readiness to the shifting demands on their businesses and the need for a more highly trained senior workforce.

But workforce development is always tricky at best.

Over the last decade, workers entering the 14 major industries that compose the U.S. manufacturing sector have had to meet more specialized, high-skill standards than those a generation ago. While these workers replace those who have moved onto higher level positions, a skills and management gap widened. New upper level managers rely on skill sets built on older technologies, changing operational standards, and aging supply chain management knowledge, while the skills paradigm of those entering the “factory floor” are built around different standards and newer technology. Each group essentially has what the other lacks.

To bridge this growing disconnect between the business acumen of the new senior level managers and the evolving skills sets, certifications, and technical skills of workers entering the workforce, the manufacturing sector made a conscious decision to band together to develop an innovative solution to skills and management training best practices.

Leaders drawn from business, skills training, and post-secondary education came together to form the Manufacturing Institute (“Institute”). This independent Institute, born out of the National Association of Manufacturers, has been charged with helping define, develop and, through partnerships, provide access to curriculum, competencies, and certifications appropriate to the manufacturing careers of tomorrow.

As part of these network partners, our institution, University of Phoenix–North America’s largest private university–is working with the Institute to offer working students post-secondary degree programs that align with the core skill sets endorsed by U.S. manufacturers. University of Phoenix’s curriculum model is specifically designed with the working learner in mind, giving students greater access, flexibility, and convenience as they work to obtain advanced education that will offer practical management and professional skills that meet the needs of employers.

Partnerships between the Institute and educational institutions demonstrate that industry-specific degree programs can successfully link worker and workforce educational demand with the skills and management training desired and needed by employers.

While the work of the Institute is still in its infancy, it is a step in the right direction for the manufacturing sector. Partnerships like this between educators and employers are a model for how we can work together to develop and deliver curriculum that will appropriately prepare the next generation of workers and ensure our workforce keeps pace with emerging technologies. This will not only be essential to America’s continued competitiveness in manufacturing, but will also deliver the next generation of highly skilled and prepared managers that are ready to lead.

Brian Lindquist, Ph.D., is Dean of the College of Graduate Business & Management at the University of Phoenix.

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