Ethan Zuckerman

Could We Create a New Career Path for Advanced Manufacturing – the Technologist?

Published Originally by MIT Public Interest Technologist


William B. Bonvillian and John Liu

By William B. Bonvillian and John Liu

There has been much talk in policy circles in recent years about manufacturing. It is a topic of stump speeches by Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Why? Because there is a growing understanding of the level of social disruption that the decline of American manufacturing carried with it. The US lost one third of its manufacturing workforce between 2000 and 2010, and almost fifteen years later those losses have not been made up. While economists originally told us the cause was improved productivity, on reexamination it turned out that US manufacturing productivity has been declining or stagnating for the past fifteen years. The country had output declines in the same period in 15 of 19 sectors, and in two others we were overstating output. Nearly 60,000 factories closed in that period. The leading cause was international competition, particularly from Asia and especially from China.

So “advanced manufacturing” came to be seen as an answer. If the US became more efficient and productive, the country could compete with regions with lower wages and costs. And scientists and engineers told us that new technologies —such as digital production, robotics, advanced materials, data analytics and AI, bio-and nano-fabrication, 3D printing, etc.— could transform the production process. 

The Workforce Education Barrier

But there those interested in this new production process ran into a barrier. Advanced manufacturing cannot be adopted unless the workforce is ready to implement it. It was a big barrier because the workforce education in the US is largely broken. The Education and Labor Departments have programs, but they don’t connect to each other. The Labor programs don’t reach incumbent workers needing new advanced skills while the Education programs focus on colleges and universities instead of the workforce. Community colleges, faced with systematic underfunding, are not in a position to develop the new advanced curricula and have low completion rates. Colleges and universities don’t think workforce education is their problem, instead they believe it belongs to community colleges and high schools. Employers, worried that competitors will snatch up employers they train have been disinvesting in workforce education until recently, as has the federal government. Underlying all this is a major gap between learning and work —there is almost no link between schools and workplaces. Meanwhile, manufacturing wages particularly at small and mid-sized manufacturing firms, under pressure from global competition, have been stagnating. Plant closings and lack of a better career path are discouraging entry into technical manufacturing jobs. Meanwhile, manufacturing has an aging workforce. Estimates are that from two to four million manufacturing jobs will open up in the coming decade. How will we fill them?


Could we change all this?

Currently, manufacturing workers are trained for their machine – a worker will spend a career welding or machining on CNC equipment. There is no real upward path. Upstairs are engineers, still trained for design and not fluent with factories floors.  But there is a new system of production awaiting entry into our factories. A revitalized manufacturing sector cannot be realized without systemic investment in manufacturing labor, and specifically in their education.


The Technologist

New manufacturing technologies, from robotics to digital production, could transform factory floors, but they require workers who span this gap. Advanced manufacturing requires workers with a technician’s practical know-how and an engineer’s comprehension of processes and systems. Companies that want to move into advanced manufacturing often struggle to find people on the ground who know how to integrate technologies to optimize the whole system, manage technological advances, and drive innovation. Workers who have these mixed skills are hard to find. The current factory floor features a long series of disconnected machines as products evolve and move down the line.  Could we, in our research and practice, integrate these machines into a system that captures new efficiencies from integrated production?  Could we find a new kind of worker to run not just the machine but the system?

We call this new type of worker the “technologist.” As advanced manufacturing progresses, technologists will be essential to the adoption of these next generation factory systems. We believe that training programs for technologists can empower both incumbent and aspiring workers to be knowledgeable, productive, and adaptable contributors to a more robust US manufacturing economy.  Manufacturing hasn’t had a solid career path for its workers since its big decline in the 2000s. Creating a new occupational category, that offers opportunities for improved pay and advances as new skills are put to work on the factory floor, could change this story. Employers could be willing to pay for these skills because they would get the gains from new productivity they offer.

The integration of systems-based technologies into advanced manufacturing processes requires a rethink of the division of labor in manufacturing, and correspondingly, a rethink of the skills and concepts necessary for workers at different levels

Twenty years ago, MIT tackled some of these issues in an educational framework for a one-year Masters of Engineering in advanced manufacturing and design. That program is intended to train manufacturing engineers and eventual plant managers or company founders, from sectors including automotive factories to state-of-the-art semiconductor foundries. The framework—built on years of research and manufacturers’ operational insights—is designed to teach critical-thinking skills using the four “whys” of manufacturing: the concepts of flow and variation in the (i) manufacturing processes, (ii) manufacturing systems, (iii) supply chains, and (iv) the management of people. Students begin with an introduction to foundational principles, with opportunities to practice analyzing the fundamental building blocks that compose manufacturing. They then have hands-on experiences to apply these principles to manage the operations of specific machines.  MIT has now widely disseminated this framework through the edX MicroMasters program in Principles of Manufacturing, which has over 200,000 enrollments globally. But that’s masters-level engineering education. Could MIT take the foundational system approach in this program and adapt it for technologists at a broader level?  To this hub it would also develop curricula for spokes in advanced manufacturing technologies, from robotics to digital production. The whole program would be fully available to community colleges and online.

MIT now has funding to develop this new technologist curricula from the Defense Department’s Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment (IBAS) program. DOD cares about the problem because it pays 1.5 million employees in defense suppliers and has its own 87,000 manufacturing workers at its arsenals and shipyards. MIT is working with UMass Lowell and a network of New England community colleges and employers, both small and large, to develop the curricula. After this phase, if it looks promising, the group will seek funding for implementation at community colleges and companies. Paid internships and forms of apprenticeships would be part of the program to break down the work/education barrier.  Online availability of teaching material create the opportunity for it to scale.

The program could be transformative. Stay tuned.

William B. Bonvillian is a Lecturer at MIT, and a Senior Director for Special Projects at MIT’s Office of Digital Learning, leading research projects on workforce education. From 2006 until 2017, he was Director of MIT’s Washington Office, supporting MIT’s long-standing and historic role in science policy. He teaches courses on science and technology policy and innovation systems at MIT and is coauthor of five books on innovation policy, Workforce Education, A New Roadmap (MIT Press 2021 – with Sanjay Sarma), The DARPA Model for Transformative Technologies (Open Book 2020), Advanced Manufacturing: The New America Innovation Policies (MIT Press 2018), Technological Innovation in Legacy Sectors (Oxford University Press 2015), and Structuring an Energy Technology Revolution (MIT Press 2009), as well as numerous articles and book chapters.  Previously, he worked for over 15 years on innovation issues as a senior advisor in the U.S. Senate, and earlier was a Deputy Assistant U.S. Secretary of Transportation. He serves on the National Academies of Sciences’ Board on Materials and Manufacturing and its standing committee for its Innovation Policy Forum and has served on eight other NAS committees, is a member of the Babbage Forum on innovation policy at Cambridge University, is on the Polaris Advisory Council for the GAO’s science and technology policy program, and chaired for four years the standing Committee on Science and Engineering Policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  He was elected a Fellow of the AAAS in 2011 and received the IEEE’s public service award in 2007.

John Liu is the Principal Investigator of the MIT Learning Engineering and Practice (LEAP) Group, which applies design principles to solving challenges to better meet the increasing demand for STEM skills in tomorrow’s workforce. He is a Digital Learning Lab Scientist and a Lecturer in MIT's Mechanical Engineering department. He leads education and workforce development efforts for MIT's new initiative: Manufacturing@MIT. He was the Director of the Principles of Manufacturing MicroMasters program, an online certificate program that has now enrolled over 200,000 learners across the globe. Dr. Liu's work includes engineering education, mixed reality and haptic experiences, workforce solutions to address the nation-wide manufacturing skills need, open-ended assessments for scalable education settings, and instructional design theory for massively open online courses. He received Best Paper Awards at the American Society Engineering Education (ASEE) in 2020. Dr. Liu earned his B.S. in Applied Physics from Caltech and S.M. and Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, under an MIT-SUTD fellowship and NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

The image featured alongside this articles is By Dietmar Rabich, CC BY-SA 4.0,