There’s a lot of bellyaching about a skills gap and the need to retrain the U.S. workforce as we enter the era of advanced manufacturing, a reference to the increasing and inevitable automation on the factory floor. U.S. corporations frequently complain they can’t fill jobs requiring skills such as operating numerical controlled machines.

"Fine — what do you need?" say educators on the front line.  Those at community colleges are particularly eager to reshape curricula to help fill those advanced manufacturing positions — and do it without driving students deep into debt.

Long at the forefront of those efforts is the California Community College system, which originated the concept of “stackable credentials” focused on technical courses that meet the immediate needs of potential employers. The system’s curriculum, skewed heavily toward advanced manufacturing, has since been updated with a “worked-based learning” approach designed to help students identify a career path, gain promotions and achieve a measure of economic mobility.

Change Your Life!” is the system’s catch phrase.

“People go to school because they want a job,” says Sheneui Weber, the system’s vice chancellor of workforce and economic development. “It’s kind of incremental process: Get a job, pay your bills, get a certification, get promoted and just keep going.”

Many alumni have, including filmmaker George Lucas (Modesto Junior College), novelist Amy Tan (San Jose City College) and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (Butte Community College).

While the California Community College system serves as a “feeder” to Cal State and University of California systems, the community college network operates on the premise that students don’t need an undergraduate degree to get a technical job. What’s needed are certifications to gain a promotion. Greatest demand is in areas like electrical, automotive and energy, especially segments like solar installation.

As for engineering, Weber said the emphasis is on emerging advanced manufacturing, and supporting information technology. Students certified in higher-paying areas like factory automation or logistics have a better chance of being promoted to mid- and upper-level technical positions.

Hence, technical certification remains a viable option for aspiring engineers, especially since the Cal State system simply cannot meet engineering enrollment demand. For example, system officials said engineering specialist Cal State-Long Beach receives about 100,000 applications each year for 10,000 slots.

Scaling
A familiar challenge for engineering schools and community colleges promoting engineering skills is, according to Weber, “How do you scale it?”

One answer is an earlier emphasis on job skills through California’s work-based learning approach. “You’ve got to start them young,” as early as the eighth grade,” Weber said in an interview. The Golden State needs to align its K-12 and community college curricula, she adds.

So, too, do community colleges and technical schools around the nation, observers note.

Serving as a template, the California system has been gearing its curriculum to industry needs for nearly a decade. It is attempting to meet manufacturers more than halfway with mentoring efforts and other industry partnerships.

Weber is of two minds about a skills or talent gap. Critics suggest that corporations complaining about a lack of technical skills sometimes use that as an excuse to resist new hiring, preferring instead to bring in lower-cost contractors who may or may not possess the skills required.

(There are other factors at work: Anecdotal evidence suggests some manufacturers can’t fill jobs due to factors such as an alarming number of applicants who can’t pass a drug test.)

While much of the course work at community colleges focuses on areas like advanced manufacturing, other training efforts target underlying IT infrastructure that will support modern factories. In one example, a “cloud academy” launched by IT services provider Ensono is a two-year training program aiming, according to the company, to “close the tech industry’s talent gap through specialized training of public cloud services.”

Meanwhile, the reality is that automation in the form of artificial intelligence and robotic process automation are taking us into a new industrial era. A recent report by U.K. electronics vendor RS Components found that manufacturing will likely benefit most from the deployment of AI technologies.

“Even if the robots take jobs, someone has to fix the robots when they break down,” Weber says. “That’s why advanced manufacturing is very important.”

Another emerging segment is additive, or 3D, manufacturing. The California system has invested $17 million in a network of “maker spaces” that emphasize 3D printing and other hands-on advanced manufacturing skills.

Those 3D printing projects are geared toward rapid prototyping of new parts, including fabricating new parts for 3D printers.

Even general math and English courses are geared toward evolving job skills. “We tend to conceptualize courses [around] additive manufacturing” jobs, Weber says.

If there is a shortage, the administrator adds, it’s a lack of career education instructors who can identify individual skills and guide students to an appropriate career path. Along with more adjunct professor with relevant work experience, companies clamoring for skilled workers need to step up with mentoring and other on-the-job training efforts.

“That’s how we scale,” Weber asserts.

Life-long learning is another way to sustain those efforts, a demographic that continues to grow as workers realize they often must reinvent themselves. Hence, the California system has embraced online education as a way to help life-long learners hone skills and find new jobs.

That flexibility is likely to go hand-in-hand with the future of work, Weber reckons, predicting that positions that go beyond today’s “gig economy” to offer flexibility will attract more and better trained workers seeking a work-life balance while keeping a roof over their heads.

Relief from the daily grind could yield a range of benefits for both workers and employers. Economic mobility for motivated workers could eventually deliver innovation for companies. “We want to bring entrepreneurship down to [the level of] a common denominator,” Weber concludes.

Ultimately, gainfully employed workers armed with advanced manufacturing and other technical skills will be positioned to innovate and, perhaps, even create their own forms of intellectual capital. If so, the nation’s economic competitiveness will be sustained and extended, educators assert.