Democratizing Access To Education In Manufacturing – Forbes

Open knowledge Creates Change

This post is about how freely accessible knowledge and training will transform manufacturing. I want to work back to manufacturing, however, via personal experience. 

Anyone who’s spent time in academia will tell you what a gift institutional libraries are. You have access to all of the worlds’ scientific and humanistic publications right there at your fingertips. Have a new research question? Great! Here are 100 sources to get you started. 

But for folks without institutional access, all of this knowledge—one of the modern world’s great resources—remains stuck behind a paywall. Have a new research question? That’ll be $100 for four days of access to one paper. What a shame! When citizen scientists and motivated individuals have access to knowledge, profound change happens. 

Manufacturing Isn’t So Different

So what does access to scientific papers have to do with manufacturing? Much more than you might think.

The fact is that the way knowledge is transmitted between manufacturing technology vendors and workers isn’t so different from academic publishing’s relationship to the general readership. Only in this case, the paywall is exorbitant training expenses and large professional service wings. The effect is the same, though. Manufacturers are held hostage by technology vendors, who know that their products are so central to production that customers will either pay for ongoing training or pay for specialists to do the work for them. The similarity between these industries runs deep. In both cases, institutional support (Universities and large enterprises) props up outdated business models that rely on scarcity, one the one hand, and professional services, on the other, and there’s plenty of momentum to keep the status quo in place.

Why Manufacturing Needs to Democratize Training

If there were ever a time to democratize training, it’s now. 

At this point, it’s hard to miss the fact that manufacturing is in the midst of a labor crisis. Last month Deloitte and the National Association of Manufacturers published an update to their now-canonical 2018 skills gap study. The big surprise? How little in this year’s study was surprising. The dire situation of 2018 seems to have, if anything, worsened. The study found that staffing high-skills roles is 36% harder in 2021 than it was in 2018, that 77%(!) of manufacturers struggle to attract and retain talent, and that the industry has failed to refill 570,000 jobs lost to COVID in addition to record new openings. They quantify the problem by noting that such a skills gap will cost the US economy 1 trillion USD over the next decade, but the real cost after accounting for the international human and political role the manufacturing industry plays could be much more severe. 

Training alone isn’t going to solve this complex problem, but it’s essential and it’s a start. 

What training in manufacturing should do

In order for manufacturing to rise to our current moment, we need to invest first and foremost in people, and the best way to do that is to invest in their long-term development. To be effective, training needs to help individuals learn and implement new technologies, understand how new tools fit into the broader human-mechanical-technological ecosystem of the modern factory, anda1 help individuals keep pace with an accelerating rate of technological change. 

Here are the traits of a democratized training for manufacturing. 

Training Should be Free and Self-Serve

Above all, training needs to be free. Training should be free, but it at least needs to be offered at consumer prices so that the cost of lifelong learning isn’t displaced onto learners. (It’s just not ethical to force training costs full-degree price tags onto workers whose skills need to be refreshed twice a decade). More than ever, individuals are required to pick up new and wide-ranging skill sets to perform effectively in manufacturing. Some are tied to particular technologies, while others are more general. This training needs to be available at no cost to the learner. 

It also needs to be available when the learner needs it. Business problems don’t arise on a semester schedule. Busy folks with jobs and families don’t want to give up nights and weekends to earn a new degree. And research has shown that adults learn most effectively when they can experiment and try things out themselves. So training in manufacturing should be available for workers to access on an on-demand, self-serve basis. 

Training Should Maximize the Expertise of Different Sectors

Knowledge is a competitive advantage. It’s often in a firm’s best interest to closely guard its secrets. Or, in the case of legacy technology vendors, who bank on wide licences:services ratios, democratizing knowledge would hurt their bottom line. But not every firm has its hands on the whole elephant, as it were. Rather, training needs to make public the expertise from industry, academia, vendors, and trade organizations. 

Each of these contributors holds a vital piece of the puzzle. Academia (inclusive of community colleges, trade schools, and traditional four-year degrees) has it’s fingers on the pulse of the future workforce—they’re literally training tomorrow’s engineers, and have curricula for doing so. Industry knows best how to operationalize knowledge. Technology vendors can act as partners for introducing and naturalizing the bleeding edge. And trade organizations have unparalleled connections to workers on the ground, meaning they know what’s needed and they know what works. This overview of what each of these organizations offers is reductive, sure, but it outlines just how much we can stand to gain from collaboration. 

Training Needs to Be Current

While it sounds obvious, it serves to look at what it means for training to be current. We’re in the middle of a digital revolution, and the rate of change has never been faster. Training that works for today’s worker isn’t going to cut it five years from now. Which means that there needs to be a board, ongoing commitment to produce and refreshing training. This isn’t a one-and-done proposition. It’s something that’s going to need to be planned, resourced, measured, improved, and refreshed over time.

Which means that democratizing education in manufacturing is going to be a massive undertaking. But, like all things worth doing, it’s worth doing right. 

Closing Thoughts

Manufacturing is at an inflection point. We can either accept that the skills gap is here to stay and that the industry will be chronically understaffed. Or we can start taking steps to reinvent the manufacturing workforce. 

While there are no easy solutions, democratizing training is an easy place to start. By offering manufacturing workers (and workers who many want to transition into the industry) a way to grow their skills on a free, on demand basis, we can strengthen the workforce and ensure that individuals are keeping pace with the world as it changes.