Biggest gap may be in thinking

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Steve Dyer

As manufacturers, we all know how important it is to address the ongoing need for a robust, skilled workforce. At stake: the opportunity to re-establish America’s position as the global manufacturing leader, not only in expertise and production, but also in education and training.

I was pleased to participate in a recent meeting of Wisconsin manufacturing and educational leaders hosted by the deputy secretary of the United States Department of Commerce, Dr. Rebecca Blank. The deputy secretary was in Madison to discuss ways public policy can support and promote the type of education that’s needed to close a growing “skills gap.” But the meeting was a reminder to me that perhaps the biggest gap we have to close isn’t just in our skills, but also in our thinking.

Represented at the meeting were some of Wisconsin’s leading biotechnology and biosciences businesses — industry sectors for which the importance of a well-educated, innovative workforce is widely understood. However, what many people may not realize is that, even for the more traditional manufacturers that are the backbone of our nation’s economy, highly skilled workers are crucial.

In virtually all sectors of manufacturing, our country’s ability to compete effectively with low-labor-cost countries like China and India requires advanced technologies and materials, sophisticated software systems and controls, and some of the world’s most knowledgeable and experienced engineers. These are among the reasons manufacturing is leading our economic recovery today.

That’s where we’re winning … for now. But when you look ahead, the news isn’t all good.

The U.S. is grossly behind the rest of the world in driving students into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) higher education programs. Only 12 percent of our students graduate in STEM-related fields, compared to 25 percent in China and 27 percent in Korea. Perhaps even more alarming, 37 percent of our STEM graduates leave the U.S. to return to their native countries, armed with knowledge from our world-renowned educational systems. And these are the same increasingly scarce skills all U.S. manufacturers need to remain competitive in the global marketplace.

So how can we as a nation take action to confront this pressing problem? Here’s just one example. I’m excited to report that Wisconsin is the 20th state to bring the National Association of Manufacturers’ Dream It. Do It. program to our region.

The goal of Dream It. Do It. is twofold: to increase awareness among young people that they can fulfill their dream of having engaging and rewarding careers by entering the manufacturing industry; and to align manufacturers, educators, young people and their parents in making these dreams a reality.

Beyond Dream It. Do It., our industry must continue spreading the program’s underlying messages across the country. The more that political leaders, educators and parents recognize the importance of the manufacturing industry and the sophistication of skills required for success, the more we can move as a nation in the right direction: educating and preparing a highly skilled manufacturing workforce.

It could be the beginning of an important shift in our collective thinking — one that bridges the gaps in both our workers’ skills and our mindsets. When we recognize that all sectors of manufacturing produce rewarding, family-sustaining careers, and that all sectors today require a highly skilled and innovative workforce, we will place the right emphasis on education required to ensure a vibrant economic future.

Dyer is CEO and president of Nashotah, Wis.-based Dickten Masch Plastics LLC, and chairman of the steering committee overseeing NAM’s Dream It. Do It. program in Wisconsin.