Digital technology is transforming manufacturing. Technologies like data analytics, simulation and wireless communications are rapidly being adopted in manufacturing today. They will be a critical factor in creating a competitive manufacturing industry. This technological revolution will drive growth not only in manufacturing, but in the broader U.S. economy.

Lack of awareness

However, many Americans aren’t aware of this industrial revolution. Old images persist of plant floors as low-tech, even gritty places. This misconception is a problem for manufacturers and contributes to lost opportunities for millions of U.S. workers. Left uncorrected, it threatens to dampen the nation’s economy as a whole.

Most Americans recognize the importance of industrial production. In fact, 70 percent rank manufacturing as the most important industry for a strong economy and national defense, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. Manufacturing significantly boosts a region’s economic health and vitality, due to higher wages and economic output. That’s one reason why cities and states make considerable effort to attract new manufacturing plants to their regions.

Looming skills gap

The potential for manufacturing job growth is great. Over the next decade, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will likely need to be filled because of baby boomer retirements and U.S. economic expansion, according to the Manufacturing Institute. However, nearly half of these could go unfilled, as fewer than 10 percent of high school and college graduates are entering manufacturing today.

“Manufacturing significantly boosts a region’s economic health and vitality, due to higher wages and economic output.”

One reason is the lack of interest and knowledge about today’s “smart” manufacturing plants. But a more important factor is the skills shortage in America. Training existing manufacturing employees and inspiring them is also required to qualify for today’s well-paying manufacturing jobs.

Leading the way

Manufacturers haven’t just recognized the problem. They’re working to solve it, by investing in training and education for workers of all ages. More manufacturers are recognizing that results-based, lifelong learning programs are a competitive advantage, not an expense to be minimized whenever possible. And a host of private and public organizations are joining the effort.

For those already working in manufacturing, successful certification and training programs are helping to provide practical and relevant certifications such as industrial networking: a must-have skill for today’s manufacturer. The Industry Talent Consortium sponsors a certification for information technology and operations technology professionals, to provide them with skills to manage and administer networked industrial control systems.

An example of training the next generation of workers is Project Lead The Way, a national nonprofit that gives K-12 students the opportunity to gain STEM skills. The organization develops world-class curriculum in computer science, engineering and biomedical science. It also trains teachers how to engage and inspire students in these subjects.

The scarcity of workers with the right skills has U.S. manufacturing executives worried. In a recent survey conducted by the Manufacturing Institute and the consulting firm Deloitte, 78 percent of manufacturing leaders believe the talent gap will hurt their ability to adopt new technologies and increase productivity. However, with the right training and inspiration, workers can realize that today’s manufacturing jobs provide well-paying, fulfilling jobs in a collaborative, clean and safe environment.