The next generation of machines is here but America may not have the workers to operate them

The US Navy has begun will build 12 top-of-the-line nuclear submarines with the first scheduled to be completed in 2027. But it’s missing a critical component: many of the estimated 50,000 skilled workers to get the job done. It also lacks a reliable supply chain and infrastructure to build large ships.

Across America, industries face massive supply chain delays, shortages of workers and construction sites due to decades of offshoring and a lack of research, education and training. US.

For example, the textile industry experienced a 20% labor shortage, and expected in the metal fabrication industry shortage of 400,000 workers by 2024. Only the first decade of the 21st century saw US manufacturing jobs are down by one-third, falling from 17 million in 2000 to less than 12 million in 2010.

I am a manufacturing researcher who are working on ways to solve a key part of America’s manufacturing challenges: preparing workers to use today’s technology while advancing tomorrow’s technology. A new workforce skilled in the design and operation of new and existing machine tools is needed to ensure America has enough workers to fill the jobs.

But these are not your mother’s machines. They are networked for better reliability and data collection, programmable for automation, and can mold metal alloys and composite materials into critical products such as medical implants, turbines for airplane engines and molds for plastic bottles.

From boom to bust

Americans are accustomed to having products and services at a click away – a society often described as postindustrial and knowledge-based. But the pandemic’s supply chain issues reveal the dangers of U.S. reliance on foreign goods and materials — from computer chips on car parts.

The US once led the world in the manufacture of machine tools, power-driven machines such as lathes, mills, and other equipment used for cutting, shaping and finishing. It forms the basis for the production of parts to support the automotive, aerospace, defense, medical and consumer goods industries.

By 2021, however, China will have a 31% share of the machine tool manufacturing market, followed by Germany and Japansame as 13%. The US ranks fourth, ahead of Italy by a narrow margin. Overall, Asian countries account for more than 50% of global machine tool production. China’s production increased of US$5 billion from 2020 to 2021, while total US production in 2021 is $7.5 billion.

But availability of equipment is only half the equation. Workers need an education and to be trained in the latest manufacturing tools and technologies.

For example, machining is a process where a stationary powered tool is used to precisely cut, shape or remove material from an object. Because the cutting edge and cut part are not rigid, the force can cause unwanted vibration. This requires an understanding of the relationship between the operating parameters for the machine and the vibration behavior of the cutting edge and part.

Works effectively with this type of equipment requires knowledge in subjects such as mathematics, geometry and physics. Educational opportunities for manufacturing careers are available at many community colleges, technical schools and universities. Once trained, skilled workers can get jobs as machine operators, programmers, data scientists, manufacturing engineers, machine designers and entrepreneurs.

To grow the skilled manufacturing force, the creation of a more strong K-12 education system which emphasizes STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – while simultaneously providing vocational programs and apprenticeships for all students is important.

But STEM education in the US lags behind many other countries. In the 37 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), US ranking seventh in science and 25th in math literacy, which is below countries such as Japan, South Korea, Estonia and the Netherlands.

Training efforts are ongoing

Yet there are attempts to prepare workers through several initiatives. Organizations like The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), STEM For All Foundation and Next Wave STEM aims to provide equal access to STEM education programs to students of all backgrounds to build a new generation of skilled workers.

I join in Cutting America, a national initiative for the development and advancement of machine tool technology supported by the Department of Defense Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment Program from the Office of Industrial Policy. America’s Cutting Edge offers free online and in-person machining and measurement training. In a one-week machining boot camp, participants learn to program and operate computer-controlled machine tools while building components for an oscillating piston air engine, which simulates the combustion engine operation in vehicles.

Participants learn how dimensional variation in a part, known as tolerances, affects the assembly of parts in a system. They also know about the relationship between machining vibrations and operating parameters. America’s Cutting Edge provides online training to more than 3,500 people in all 50 states and has expanded from Tennessee to Texas, North Carolina, West Virginia and Florida for in-person machining boot camps with plans for national presence. While boot camp cannot replace a traditional apprenticeship or education program, it provides participants with exposure to key machining concepts and empowers them to decide about the next step in their education and career journey.

In order to fill these and other programs, I believe that recruitment efforts must extend from grade, middle, and high school students to parents to two- and four-year educational institutions.

The Navy, and manufacturing in general, is in a war for talent. The lines need to be filled with talent across the spectrum. If we do not act now, the US national defense and economy will be compromised.

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