FUSE Update #3 – What does it mean to be ready for advanced manufacturing?

The title of my fellowship is “Create a HR Pipeline for Advanced Manufacturing”.  That would seem straightforward, right? All we need to do is define “advanced manufacturing” and we should be able to get kids ready for it. That’s where the fun starts. I asked every interviewee exactly what “advanced manufacturing” really means. According to our community, advanced manufacturing is:

  • “Tesla – what they do…”,
  • “well, lots of technologies and advanced materials”
  • “biotech, for sure”
  • “it’s more advanced than what we used to do…”
  • “six Sigma, lean manufacturing, kaizen and all that stuff…”
  • “It’s a rebranding of manufacturing, because now it’s more advanced”

Those definitions are actually quite helpful because they highlight the fact that “advanced manufacturing” is, indeed, a slippery term. The best definition that I’ve heard is that advanced manufacturing is “any manufacturing that can be profitable in the Bay Area.”  While that’s slightly humorous, it does get at the heart of the issue. In order to be profitable in the Bay Area with its high labor costs, the percentage of labor as part of the manufacturing process has to be low, so advanced manufacturing has to use advanced technology, advanced materials or advanced processes. Those are slippery terms themselves, but they do help define advanced manufacturing.

A 2011 report prepared by Pres. Obama’s Council Advisors on Science and Technology defines advanced manufacturing as activities that “(a) depend on the use and coordination of information, automation, computation, software, sensing, and networking, and/or (b) make use of cutting edge materials and emerging capabilities enabled by the physical and biological sciences, for example nanotechnology, chemistry, and biology. This involves both new ways to manufacture existing products, and especially the manufacture of new products emerging from new advanced technologies.”

Particularly relevant to our conversation, and one of three recommendations made in the Council’s report “to ensure that the Nation has the highly skilled workforce needed to attract and maintain advanced manufacturing in the United States,” is that the Federal Government should use its means to “strengthen science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.”

So, according to the government, schools can prepare kids for advanced manufacturing if we teach them STEM skills. The word “skills” implies an ability to do something well. However, most of my interviewees seemed to use the term “STEM skills” as describing basic science, technology and engineering knowledge. My interviewees seem to indicate that STEM skills are the foundation needed for students to then learn more specialized knowledge and skills on the job.

Digging deeper into the interviews, STEM skills, as my interviewees describe them, seem necessary, but not quite sufficient. Brain Paper of Bay Area Circuits summarized this best when he said “I can teach people how to run the machines. I need people that can solve the problems when things go wrong. That’s really hard to find.”  This was echoed in other conversations with manufacturers.  They seem to be saying that STEM skills are the background information needed, and that the ability to define a new problem, brainstorm solutions, evaluate the solutions, take action and iterate is what is actually needed for success in advanced manufacturing.  This isn’t surprising, nor is it unique to advanced manufacturing. Tony Wagner, in his book “Raising Innovators”, lists “critical thinking and problem-solving” first in a list of the seven core skills for innovators.

The Next Generation Science Standards, which were adopted by California in 2013, agrees that creative problem-solving skills are an important component of STEM skills.  The NGSS Engineering Practices emphasize “asking questions (for science) and defining problems (for engineering), developing and using models and planning and carrying out investigations”, among others.  These standards neatly describe the need Brian described.

Fremont, like other districts, has struggled to figure out how to implement NGSS, especially since the state won’t approve curriculum until 2018. But regardless of the reason, Brian and others have trouble finding employees, particularly for operator/technician level jobs, who can solve complex problems. It feels as though we have not yet figured out how to use the curriculum to help students learn problem-solving skills needed for advanced manufacturing.  Or perhaps Fremont graduates don’t know about or aren’t applying to jobs at Bay Area Circuits and our other manufacturers.

That brings me to my final point, perhaps summarized best by Marian Wright Edelman’s quote when she said: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” In order to be ready for manufacturing jobs, you have to know that they exist. If we want kids to go into manufacturing, then we need to help them become aware of that possible career path as well as to understand what skills are necessary for it.

I was struck by this when Noreen King, CEO and owner of Evolve Manufacturing, described how she found a young woman proving to be one of her best recent hires: her mom already worked there.  No doubt, in this home, manufacturing was seen as a viable opportunity to create a good life.

So, to help kids get ready for jobs in advanced manufacturing, they need to have STEM skills, the capacity to solve new problems experimentally, an awareness of manufacturing jobs and an understanding that manufacturing jobs can be a path to a good life. That’s by no means an exhaustive list, but it seems a good place to start.

Next up: how do we help kids learn this?

If you see flaws in my logic or ideas that I missed, please get in touch at pthomas@fremont.gov  or join me at one of my community meetings. Details here.


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