The sky’s no limit for skilled workers
By Charlotte Weber
“In tough economic times with high unemployment and the loss of jobs, it is difficult to focus on workforce skills development. In reality we have no better time. …. True economic reform means not only righting our economic ship but also pursuing the strategies that will ensure we maintain our competitiveness – our manufacturing competitiveness – into the future.”
That’s how Emily DeRocco, president of the Manufacturing Institute, sums up the challenge – and the opportunity – that now confronts us.
Ms. DeRocco is absolutely right.
Yes, even as signs multiply that we’re emerging from what some have labeled the Great Recession, the nation’s unemployment rate remains stubbornly high. And many pundits are beginning to talk about a “jobless recovery.” But there’s something else important going on today – something that most so-called experts have either missed or simply refuse to acknowledge.
In a 2009 survey done for the Manufacturing Institute, a nationwide cross-section of companies reported they’re unable to find (and retain) the skilled workers they need. Almost one-third of the responding companies reported they had experienced some level of shortages.
No doubt a multitude of factors have come into play in creating this shortage of skilled workers, but it’s clear that a huge factor is the unwillingness of many young workers to consider jobs on the factory floor. And a big part of that unwillingness can be traced to the negative – and totally inaccurate – image of factories that exists in the minds of many people.
Today’s typical high-tech manufacturing plant is a clean, well-lighted place that easily could be mistaken for a hospital or maybe even a college campus. As a report from the U.S. Department of Labor notes: “Popular perceptions of manufacturing jobs as dark, dangerous and dirty are largely outdated as advanced robotics and other ‘intelligent’ systems become pervasive throughout the manufacturing process.”
It’s absolutely essential that we combat this inaccurate image and shine a spotlight on today’s appealing career opportunities in manufacturing.
Today’s U.S. workforce is the best educated and most skilled in our nation’s history. But as the members of the “baby boom” generation retire, it’s not going to be easy to find the skilled workers to replace them. Moreover, technological innovation in the manufacturing sector means that today’s manufacturing jobs require greater skills than ever before.
Supplying these type skills is a big part of what we’re all about at the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing. As West Virginia’s only statewide advanced manufacturing technology center, RCBI works hard – 24/7, every day of the year – to provide companies and individuals with the kind of innovative training and equipment they need to be competitive in today’s marketplace.
Given the right tools and training, West Virginia workers are the match of any workers anywhere.
As evidence of this, consider the innovative Super Lightweight Interchangeable Carrier, or SLIC, which was designed by NASA engineers for the Space Shuttle Atlantis mission to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope. SLIC is the first composite-material equipment certified to fly in a human spaceflight program. It is slimmer, weighing only about half as much as conventional carriers, and stronger. With this new design, the Space Shuttle is able to carry three times the payload, making room for additional scientific instruments and other components.
SLIC is a revolutionary development and has vast implications for future flights, of course. And it was built right here in West Virginia, at Bridgeport, by FMW Composites, Inc. In crafting the innovative carrier, FMW and NASA worked closely with RCBI’s Composites Technology & Training Center, employing its test equipment, training facilities, laser measuring systems, lathes, mills and other sophisticated equipment, as well as tapping RCBI’s staff expertise.
Not every project we’re involved with is as exciting or glamorous as SLIC. But we approach each with the same level of dedication and commitment. And make no mistake about it: SLIC dramatically points the way to West Virginia’s future – a future where the sky’s no limit for workers who have the right kind of technical skill sets and access to the latest technologies.
To learn more about who we are and what we do, log on to www.rcbi.org.
Charlotte Weber is director and CEO of the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing (RCBI), which operates Advanced Manufacturing Technology Centers in Huntington, South Charleston, Bridgeport and Rocket Center, W.Va.