As published in Lehigh Valley Business on June 15, 2015
Somewhere between blue collar and white collar is a new kind of high-skill, high-demand, high-wage employee.
Gold collar workers form the backbone of the new manufacturing industry – one based less on the assembly line and more on research and development and complex technological fabrication such as 3-D printing and rapid manufacturing.
Traditional manufacturing really began with the Industrial Revolution of the last century and relied on many hands working together in concert to create something difficult (or even impossible) to build individually. Processes centered on building a hive-mentality system supported by an infrastructure that leveraged economies of scale and lots and lots of unskilled labor.
Factory workers could be trained on-the-job and weren’t required to bring much more than a high school diploma to the table. Unskilled factory workers could be assured a decent wage, and whole communities flourished around American factories.
Over time, as companies continued to focus on doing more with much less, automation boosted output while making many of the former Industrial Revolution methods and job descriptions obsolete. Consequently, we’ve seen fewer men and more machines on the shop floors across America.
U.S. manufacturing and manufacturing jobs, however, are not dead, although both do look different.
Automated manufacturing that focuses on cost cutting has reached a tipping point and is giving way to advanced manufacturing that focuses on innovation.
Driven by pioneering machines and newly accessible materials, as well as widespread harnessing of information technologies, the manufacturing industry is on the cusp of a new revolution where productivity and creativity intersect.
One emerging trend, specifically, has had huge impact: Rapid manufacturing.
In the last decade, rapid prototyping technologies have made the leap from prototyping-only capabilities into the ability to rapidly manufacture final-use products.
Technologies such as 3-D printers and CNC (computer numerical control) routers – and advances in raw materials available for rapid fabrication – have opened an entire new area of potential for high-volume direct manufacturing.
Production, assembly and finishing processes that used to take weeks or months with traditional manufacturing can now be accomplished in much less time.
New processes, new materials and new machines are reducing time-to-market across the board and making product innovations, efficiencies and increased performance possible for everything from the automotive and aerospace industries to medical and bioscience communities to widget inventors alike.
Advanced manufacturing has not only made leaps in product and process innovation, but it is opening a widening horizon of opportunities for a new kind of worker – one who can begin to fill the gaps left on the factory floors across America.
Manufacturing is responsible for more innovation in the U.S. than any other industry, producing two-thirds of all private-sector research and development. Consequently, rather than simply filling the shop floor, manufacturers are looking to fill a new need – highly skilled manufacturing specialists – or so-called gold collar workers.
Gold collar workers are comfortable and competent with complex, expensive computerized machines; they understand and apply critical thinking to create manufacturing solutions; and they have specialized training in various aspects of the industry.
With responsibilities heavy in math, technology and engineering, gold collar jobs in the manufacturing industry demand a high level of skill and – best of all for American workers – often come with a wage range higher than what traditional factory work offers.
Requiring more than a high-school diploma but potentially less than a four-year degree, gold collar jobs also are in high demand. Neither public policy nor the public schools systems are doing much to feed the training programs that turn out specialized gold collar workers, leading to a shortage of qualified job seekers and an ever-increasing demand.
About 40 percent of job growth in the next two years will be comprised of gold collar positions – an estimated 2.5 million new jobs.
Manufacturing has relied less and less on manual processes powered by massive numbers of people over the last 40 years. However, modern manufacturing requires more and more college-educated and highly specialized workers creating and then running technologically advanced machinery.
Additive manufacturing, in particular, requires designers, engineers, technicians and fabricators with significant knowledge – just as much brain as brawn.
As modern manufacturing focuses on ingenuity and enters what some are calling the next Industrial Revolution, the opportunities for an entire new kind of workforce will only grow.
– By Ron Belknap