Changing Face of Manufacturing Leads to Skills Gap, Job Opportunities

by Jan Cottingham  on Monday, Apr. 7, 2014 12:00 am  

Walter Burgess

For those half-empty-glass people, the increasing use of advanced technology — think robotics, lasers and computers — in manufacturing has led to a “skills gap” that makes finding capable employees challenging.

For you half-full-glass folks, the increasing use of advanced technology in manufacturing means that job opportunities exist for those with the right abilities.

Walter Burgess, vice president of sales and engineering at laser-making Power Technology Inc. of Alexander, said his high-tech firm sees the workforce lacking in “fundamental STEM knowledge — science, technology, engineering, math education.

“We see employees who don’t know the basics of the laws of physics.”

“We fail at the elementary-school level to teach significant science at those grade levels, whereas we look at our peer countries in the world, countries that are more innovative than we are like Singapore, they’re teaching science and engineering and math concepts before sixth grade,” he said.

However, the biggest problem his company faces in hiring are problems with work ethic and decision-making ability, the so-called “soft” skills. “Decision-making ability isn’t taught in the school system at the moment, both in higher ed and lower ed,” Burgess said. “We’re teaching to a test and we’re teaching memorization skills, but we’re not teaching decision-making skills.

“For example, I need someone to take five or six pieces of information, add it to the knowledge that they have about a product or an industry and then make a rational decision or best-case decision, and those skills are lacking,” he said.

In terms of worker training, “primarily where we’ve seen successes is where the curriculum is aligned with the industry in the state,” he said. “And specifically, where we’ve benefited most recently is with Pulaski Technical College offering classes for the photonics and optics industry in the state. That has just started based on industry feedback to the presidents and chancellors [of the state’s colleges] from a couple of years ago.”

Burgess said the photonics industry in Arkansas — photonics is the technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy — has an economic impact in the state of about $77 million and employs about 500.

He said Pulaski Tech only recently began offering the courses.

In addition, Burgess said, the state in the past has provided grants that allowed Power Technology to train its staff on lean manufacturing standards, which helped the company increase production capacity, along with training in a variety of electronics manufacturing standards.

“This has helped us keep up with the rest of the nation,” he said.



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