Playing video games and simplifying technical language are some ways to solve the gap in the manufacturing workforce, according to those who work on both sides of the equation.
During a manufacturing workforce summit on Feb. 22 hosted at the now-open IT3 Innovation Center in Ridgefield, representatives of higher education, job training and a leader of a prominent manufacturing corporation provided insight on the state’s manufacturing industry. Braving the week’s winter storm, panelists for the summit discussed the realities of the current state of the workforce.
IT3 celebrated its grand opening that day. The Ridgefield facility is intended to bring together a variety of partners to address the need for skilled labor in the region.
The organization’s board chair, Ron Arp, said IT3 began when the Port of Ridgefield realized it was running out of land to generate economic activity.
“Then the bright idea was, maybe it wasn’t land we need to develop, but talent we need to develop,” Arp said.
He said IT3 would make it “easier to bridge people from their learning years to their earning years.”
Kevin Witte, IT3’s CEO, cited findings from a 2021 study by ECONorthwest, one of the most significant being that Washington was dead last among states in terms of the number of housing units per household.
“It’s not only affordability, it’s just having employees able to find a house,” Witte said.
Based on the study, he said Washington’s success has been based on a strong university and college system, “but the situation has changed and it’s not fitting all those pieces.”
“Maintaining the status quo is no longer an option for Washington state if it wants to continue to be a competitive force in the national and global economy,” the study read.
That means looking at alternatives like certification training to help fill skill gaps.
During the summit’s roundtable, Barbara Humpton, the U.S. CEO of German company Siemens, spoke from the perspective of a company that has been in the manufacturing industry for 175 years.
“This company has been a part of every industrial revolution that’s happened and the one that’s in front of us right now may be the most exciting of all,” Humpton said. “Because today what we see are the tools of the internet, the tools of gaming coming into manufacturing.”
The evolution of the digital space has allowed for expanded creativity, Humpton said. She said the other major change is the localization of manufacturing.
In the past, shipping those jobs overseas to save money was the status quo, but recent regional and global events show a critical fault in the old model.
“We can’t withstand the supply chain disruptions of pandemics and wars and natural disasters,” Humpton said. “Now people are starting to rethink the supply chains and thinking ‘how could I make things closer to where they are going to be used?’”
She reiterated her support of what might be seen as nothing more than a pastime, but rather more of an avenue for a better grasp of what future manufacturing will look like.
“When parents ask me, ‘what should my child do to be ready for the manufacturing jobs of the future,’ I say, let them play their video games,” Humpton said.
Washington State University Vancouver Chancellor Mel Netzhammer agreed as he related playing games to higher education.
“You master a level, and then when you have that mastery of that level, you move to the next level,” Netzhammer said.
Higher education generally needs to be more responsive to workforce needs, Netzhammer said. He recalled a potential employer who discussed connections with the university, specifically in regard to influencing the curriculum.
This was something Netzhammer believed would be rejected by faculty. He was surprised to find his director of engineering was on board with the request.
“I think those kinds of partnerships are essential. Some are better than others,” Netzhammer said.
As for new challenges to higher learning, he provided an example of artificial intelligence as something institutions need to be ready for. Overall, he said success would come from not being stuck in old ways of thinking.
“I think it is a combination of an educated workforce that is adaptable along with the right type of preparation,” Netzhammer said.
“We are going through a period of change that is unlike any since 50, 60, 70 years ago, in terms of what people do after high school,” Michael Meotti, the executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council said.
Meotti said the state needs broader community partnerships beyond high schools and colleges, and a focus at the local level.
“From governments, philanthropy, employers, social advocacy groups, community leaders, community-based nonprofits, that’s what we’re trying to stimulate and support with state funds,” Meotti said.
He also noted a need to focus on populations that don’t have several years to see a benefit from education and training, but could benefit from 90 to 180-day training to get well-paying jobs.
Will Booth, the program director for Tribal Technology Training, one of IT3’s partners, said the lack of access for communities of color in manufacturing and other skilled jobs is in part because the ones who provide the training or jobs aren’t getting out into the communities.
“And when it does get there, the terminology is so archaic or so many levels above a PhD level, nobody understands it,” Booth said.
Reframing the often esoteric language of high-level manufacturing into terms that are more readily understandable would allow for greater success in getting potential candidates interested in jobs, Booth said.
“They may not test well, but they can surely demonstrate (their skills),” Booth said.