Manufacturing has undergone a crucial image makeover in recent years. Where people used to think of it as one or all of the “four Ds” — dirty, dark, dangerous and declining — they now see it as something much more promising.
So says Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President Shirley Ann Jackson, who has watched the transformation by watching her students’ faces every day.
“Our students’ excitement about advanced manufacturing suggests that a cultural shift is occurring,” she said. “The young do not see manufacturing as brutal and dull, but instead as deft and ingenious, and we have to encourage this.”
The newfound image is one of several strengths that manufacturing has in the region and across the nation. But there are challenges, too, like the lack of a skilled workforce and the risks associated with moving a product from lab to market. Jackson, along with manufacturers, policy makers, researchers and other stakeholders, met at RPI Thursday morning to identify both the strengths and challenges of the Capital Region’s manufacturing environment.
RPI and GlobalFoundries hosted the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) 2.0 meeting, one of a series of regional meetings being held across the country this year to help inform national policy recommendations for President Barack Obama. The president created AMP in 2011 to help revitalize manufacturing and enhance America’s global competitiveness.
The biggest challenge facing today’s manufacturers is the lack of a highly skilled workforce, said Michael Molnar, director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Advanced Manufacturing National Program Office.
“It is unacceptable today that the No. 1 issue we hear from manufacturers is access to skilled workers,” he said. “We know how to fix this. We need to develop and invest in more career pathways — internships, apprenticeships, et cetera.”
The Capital Region is aware of its skills gap, though hardly alone in the dilemma. A report issued last year by America’s Edge, a national organization of business leaders, found that New York will likely face a shortage of 350,000 workers with mid-level skills by 2018. Meanwhile, 82 percent of the region’s manufacturers say they struggle to find qualified candidates.
What’s remarkable, Molnar said, is that during AMP 1.0, the region’s top CEOs and university leaders didn’t recommend more public investment in their own companies or research institutions as a solution. Instead, they encouraged more investment in local community colleges and apprenticeship programs.
One obvious strength for manufacturing in the region is the presence of GlobalFoundries, which employs 2,200 people at its Fab 8 campus in Malta and is on track to employ 3,000 by the end of the year. Former GlobalFoundries CEO and current senior adviser Ajit Manocha said that for every one person on the payroll, at least five more people are employed indirectly.
The semiconductor giant is in the process of manufacturing next-generation chip technology that has put the region on the map and reassured customers that they don’t have to rely on overseas manufacturers for the technology they use every day, he said.
None of this could have been done, Manocha said, without the support of public investment from the state. Public investment to help spur private investment in high-tech manufacturing should be a priority nationwide, officials said Thursday.
“This is really driving the national agenda,” Manocha said. “If you look at the history of manufacturing in the U.S., for some reason we lost the touch and moved a lot of our manufacturing east. China wasn’t known for manufacturing 20 years ago. Today, you can just bet on anything is made in China. We, as members of the regional AMP 2.0, need to drive manufacturing because that really leads to the prosperity of a nation.”
Two more regional AMP 2.0 meetings will be held in Cambridge, Mass., and Detroit before findings are presented to the president this summer.