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“New Collar” Workers Are the Future of Manufacturing

American manufacturers already face significant skills shortages and are on pace to have two million unfilled manufacturing jobs by 2025. Many of these positions require higher-tech skills to operate and support advanced manufacturing equipment, such as computer numerical control (CNC) machining stations, lathes and lasers. Automation and robotics are also becoming embedded into manufacturing processes. Sensor technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT) create large amounts of operational data that must be captured, analyzed and stored. Such large-scale digitalization requires workers with more advanced skills—typically one or two years of post-secondary education or training. These workers represent the “new collar” workforce, which requires more specialized training compared to the traditional “blue collar” assembly job.


Several years ago Ginni Rometty, CEO for IBM, stated that new collar jobs in many industries remain largely unfilled. “The surprising thing,” she stated, “is that not all of these positions require advanced education or require a traditional college degree. What matters most is that these employees have relevant skills, often obtained through vocational training.”


More recently she has called for government, industry and educational leaders to develop innovative ways to build the white collar workforce for the future. IBM is out in front, with plans to hire 25,000 new collar employees by 2020.


New collar manufacturing jobs are also safer, more intellectually challenging and offer better pay than traditional blue collar jobs, making them more appealing to students graduating from high school, colleges and technical schools.


Skills of the New Collar Worker


Manufacturers expect new collar workers to have the digital skills needed to “run automation and software, work with CAD files and programs (such as Fusion 360 and Autodesk), program sensors, maintain robots, repair 3D printers and collect and analyze data,” says Sarah Boisvert, author of The New Collar Workforce and co-founder of the commercial division of Potomac Photonics, a manufacturer in Baltimore, Maryland.


Other tech skills common to new collar workers include but are not limited to cloud computing maintenance, security analysis and testing, data mining and statistical analysis, data storage engineering and management, user interface design and operational and maintenance skills for advanced machining equipment. New equipment, including additive manufacturing and 3D printing, requires machine managers and programmers. The IoT also brings real-time equipment maintenance to the forefront of operational management and decision-making.


Creating the Workforce of the Future


As industries from manufacturing to agriculture are reshaped by data science and cloud computing, jobs are being created that demand new skills—which in turn requires new approaches to education, training and recruiting,” states Rometty. For example, IBM’s Pathways in Technology (P-Tech) enables high school students to earn associate degrees through a six-year program. Many of these graduates will join the IT workforce or continue their education and pursue university degrees.


Rometti recommends partnerships with community colleges and other post-secondary institutions to create high-value programs to prepare students for new collar job requirements. These partnerships often work best at the regional and local levels, where they can be customized to the area’s needs. These schools then become vital links for matching new collar graduates with advanced manufacturing jobs.


Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina provides a variety of new-collar training for workers. “We’re seeing this in a number of areas, especially for jobs in advanced manufacturing,” states college president Gary M. Green. For example, welding jobs today require higher-level skills, particularly in math and technology, so workers can troubleshoot the machines. “Employers want not just training in typical manual welding, but robotic welding as well,” Green says. “Our students are preparing for those careers.”


Potomac Photonics has expanded its workforce training program with local colleges to provide digital manufacturing training. Some students seeking new collar careers receive paid internships to work at Potomac. “They can then jump right in and learn the particulars of our equipment and processes,” says president and CEO Mike Adelstein.


“We live in a time of extraordinary opportunity to look to the future and fundamentally change manufacturing jobs, but also to show people the value in new collar jobs and to create nontraditional pathways to engaging, fulfilling careers in the digital factory,” adds Boisvert. “If industry is to invigorate and revitalize manufacturing, it must start with the new collar workers who essentially make digital fabrication for Industry 4.0 possible.”

"The surprising thing is that not all of these positions require advanced education or require a traditional college degree. What matters most is that these employees have relevant skills, often obtained through vocational training."
Ginni Rometty, CEO


    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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