Manufacturing in R.I., Chapter 3: Education System Influence

The Rhode Island manufacturing environment is alive and strong. We already have looked at the current economy and support mechanisms that are helping the health of that environment.

But what about the educational system support for manufacturers in the state? We already know the manufacturing landscape has changed from the dark, dreary and dangerous to a clean and technologically advanced environment, and that more training is needed than in our grandfather’s day.

There are three main areas to consider when discussing the educational support system for manufacturing – K-12, including vocational high schools; post-secondary schools, including community colleges, technical colleges, colleges and universities; and apprenticeship and certification programs.

Rhode Island’s 11 colleges and universities support our manufacturing companies with engineers, scientists, accountants and marketers. While this talent set is important for companies to survive and advance, it takes a more holistic approach to build Rhode Island’s manufacturing workforce.

High schools, secondary schools and vocational and technical schools serve as feeders for our state’s workforce, with programs designed to pique students’ interest in manufacturing careers. In addition, apprenticeship programs, STEM groups and certification programs are critical to fill the important needs of a manufacturing environment. Local examples of these are Rhode Island’s nontraditional apprenticeship CNC Machinist program; New England Institute of Technology’s Shipbuilding/Marine Trades and Advanced Manufacturing Institute; the National Career Readiness Certification program; and the Manufacturing Skills Standards Certification programs.

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Standards and Technology have studied the importance of elementary education on manufacturing workforce development. All studies have shown that early education strongly influences workforce choices.

Large institutions – including the National Association of Manufacturers, the Manufacturing Institute, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and others – have dedicated significant budgets to reaching into the elementary education systems in order to teach children the importance of soft skills, manufacturing skills and technical training.

Statewide initiatives also focus on guiding our youth with tools to the best career choice for them. The Governors Workforce Board funded the development of Career Pathways, which guides our youth to manufacturing positions based on their individual talents and capabilities.

The nontraditional CNC Machinist Program at Community College of Rhode Island, and the SAMI program at New England Tech are examples of schools using these pathways as key tools in building programs that support manufacturing-industry needs.

Currently eight manufacturers (Blount Fine FoodsBullard AbrasivesChemArtGuill ToolHope GlobalRaytheonWalco and Yushin America) have signed on with Polaris MEP as employer partners to the GWB’s Manufacturing Industry Partnership. More manufacturers are needed to achieve the comprehensive industry input a strong workforce requires.

In addition, grassroots efforts such as the Rhode Island Students of the Future, Newport County STEAM, RI STEM and others have made tremendous strides in connecting students with the growing manufacturing opportunities in the state.

The need for coordinated programs focused on K-12 students is an important and missing component to this critical topic.

Many manufacturers in Rhode Island have told me that they are having problems finding qualified people to work on their manufacturing floors. Our small state needs a more coordinated awareness – starting in elementary school our educational system should use input from manufacturers throughout the state who understand their industry needs.

The coordination of these critical activities from the top as well as from the ground up will improve workforce readiness and manufacturing growth.

Upcoming chapters will look at:

  • A flatter future.
  • The maker-community influence.
  • Military and defense-industry growth.

Christian Cowan is center director of Polaris MEP, the University of Rhode Island Research Foundation’s federally funded, statewide manufacturing business resource. He can be reached at ccowan@polarismep.organd (401) 270-8896, x413. This is the first in a six-part series on the Rhode Island manufacturing landscape.

Post also published on Providence Business News.

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