At the Escuela Vieau School in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, seventh-grader Camila Garcia was building a model wind turbine in a class intended to spark interest in engineering.
“At first, I thought: ‘This is for boys, it’s not for me. I can’t do it,’” the 13-year-old recalled. “Now I see that I can do it and that it’s fun.”
Her nascent interest in both learning math as well as the skills to apply it — measuring, designing and assembly — is a hopeful sign for manufacturers facing an unfamiliar problem as the US grapples with high unemployment.
After years of cutting workforces, executives say they cannot find enough people with the skills needed to thrive in modern factories. About 600,000 skilled manufacturing positions are unfilled in the US, according to a survey by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute.
Even though 23.8 million Americans are out of work or underemployed, many people applying for manufacturing jobs are unqualified. Beyond the requisite technical skills, they lack essential cognitive skills, recruiters say.
“We’re having a challenge, increasingly, finding capable people coming out of our secondary institutions, primarily high-school educated, that have the capability to work in some of our operations,” said Stuart Levenick, group president at Caterpillar Inc.
It is a problem that has also caught the attention of policymakers — the White House has launched a program co-chaired by the heads of Dow Chemical Co and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to promote the training of students in science, technology, engineering and math.
Escuela Vieau and the other 4,200 middle and high schools in the Project Lead the Way program are part of a possible solution, teaching problem-solving and hands-on skills.
Projects range from Garcia’s wind turbine to high school robotics classes, where students use small industrial automation systems to build machines that perform multi-step tasks, such as putting marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers together into s’mores snacks.
“Many of our students simply don’t know what kind of jobs are out there,” said Eduardo Galvan, principal at the school, located in an inner-city neighborhood where many parents work in low-wage jobs. “It’s a way for them to get to know what an engineer does and to get exposure to different kinds of work.”
Modern US factories bear little resemblance to the production lines of the 1950s and 1960s, where hundreds of workers performed repetitive tasks such as attaching parts to a car or tightening bolts on a refrigerator, which often required significant physical strength.
Instead they tend to fall into one of two modes. One is high-speed automated plants where specialized machines produce large volumes of nearly identical products, such as fabric or razor blades, and workers make sure that the machines run smoothly and get them back online quickly when they break.
The other is plants that make highly customized capital equipment, such as airplanes or industrial machinery, where each unit is slightly different and workers’ job is to meet the varying needs of different customers.
In either case, employers are looking less for brawn and more for people who have math skills and a grasp of how their complicated equipment works. They do not need full-fledged engineers, but workers at ease in the mechanical world, able to apply scientific and technical principles to structures and manufacturing processes.