Q&A with Mark Tomlinson

Executive Director and CEO; Society of Manufacturing Engineers

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In light of President Obama’s emphasis on creating manufacturing jobs in the United States, what do you see as the best path forward?

The first thing I would say is that we should use existing programs before creating new ones. Should additional grant money come available to support workforce training programs there will be the desire among some to develop new partnerships, career tracks, and certifications, and while innovation is always welcome we don’t want to lose sight of the fact that there is already a framework in place in which these programs can thrive. Not only have these academic institutions already attained the proper accreditations for their programs, they are “outcomes based,” meaning grades are awarded according to what students have actually learned once their coursework has been completed.

One example I can give you of an excellent model is offered by my alma mater, Ferris State University. They offer a “two-plus-two” program that enables students to get an associate degree on their way to completing the requirements for a bachelor’s degree. And we’re really seeing interest in offering these types of training programs growing around the country, particularly among community colleges. And the online component is growing as well, as you’ll find at institutions such as SME’s ToolingU, which is the country’s leading provider of Web-based training for manufacturers.

What is SME doing as an advocate of workforce training programs?

We have a number of initiatives through the SME Education Foundation that are really making a difference. One is known as Partnership Response in Manufacturing Education, or PRIME, in which we are creating partnerships between organizations, businesses, and schools to provide a comprehensive, community-based approach to manufacturing education.

We began this program in 2011 by selecting six schools based on a strict set of criteria. They were required to have an exemplary manufacturing curriculum, skilled instructors and engaged students, and an active relationship with local manufacturers or an SME membership group. The foundation provided these six schools with a $10,000 grant that was used to update equipment, software, or to pay for instructor training. We also provided each school with an additional $5,000 to help launch a summer camp program to support student recruitment.

We are also involved in the Gateway Academy, which is a weeklong day camp designed by Project Lead the Way (PLTW) to introduce middle-school students to the fundamentals of science, technology, engineering, and math—also known as STEM courses.

The ManufacturingisCool.com interactive Web site engages young students with basic engineering principles while also providing teachers with interesting educational resources, and the CareerME.org project was designed in conjunction with the National Center for Manufacturing Education (NCME) to provide high-school students with the opportunity to learn about advanced manufacturing though visits to actual plants, as well as colleges and universities with related programs. Then there is the National Robotics Challenge, which is supported by the SME Education Foundation and is one of the premier robotics and engineering student competitions in the nation.

One of our major recent thrusts is our collaboration with The Edge Factor Show, which features extreme manufacturing technologies. A recent episode spotlighted a company in Pennsylvania that made the drill bit that was used to rescue the workers in the Chilean mine collapse. Plans for the future include the development of EDU Factor, which will first produce videos based on show episodes for use in the classroom, and later a Web site that will also be a teaching tool. So we have a lot going on in terms of supporting both student recruitment and workplace training, as you can see.

What do you feel is central to making this movement a success?

Efficiency, agility, and collaboration. We want to be efficient by avoiding redundancy and utilizing existing programs and networks. Colleges and universities need to be more agile in terms of developing or fine-tuning programs to reflect what industry actually needs, as quickly as possible, and we need to see greater collaboration between academia, industry, and organizations such as SME. By first making people aware of what an exciting career manufacturing can be, and then providing them with the tools they need to succeed, we can bridge the skills gap we’re currently facing in manufacturing.

MORE INFORMATION: Go to www.sme.org, www.theedgefactor.com, and www.toolingu.com.