Well-paying jobs are going unfilled in Michigan due to a lack of skilled workers in the manufacturing sector. Educators say a stigma has developed around jobs that involve working with one’s hands, often referred to as the maker space.
Instead, many students attend four-year schools to obtain degrees that may not provide them with the practical skills they’ll need for the workplace. After racking up tens of thousands of dollars in debt, in some cases, many college graduates start jobs that don’t pay much — or they can’t find work at all.
With a strong economy contributing to historically low unemployment rates, manufacturers are desperate to find skilled people who can design, build, and operate equipment and develop innovative products. The good news is the skill sets for these jobs can be obtained without taking out a large loan for tuition. What’s more, people who start out in the maker space may wind up earning more money than college graduates.
“You don’t have to accumulate educational debt in order to earn a six-figure income,” says Patricia Chatman, dean of the Henry Ford College School of Business, Entrepreneurship, and Professional Development in Dearborn. On the contrary, people can reach six figures in annual earnings with only a two-year degree or a certification in skilled trades, she says.
That’s the message employers, educators, and business leaders are sharing with young people as they work to break the stigma around manufacturing jobs. “These are occupations where individuals can not only earn a livable wage, but these are also pathways toward the American dream,” Chatman says. “You can get rich working with your hands.”
It can be difficult to reach potential workers, though, when many young people aren’t even aware of the wide array of manufacturing jobs that are available. Vocational classes were prevalent in high schools at one time, but due to funding cuts and other factors, the programs were largely eliminated.
In addition, the image of old-school production jobs that were more about brawn than brains has hurt recruitment efforts. Pam Miller, associate dean at the Grand Rapids Community College School of Workforce Development, says over the past 20 years, many parents have encouraged their children to pursue four-year college degrees rather than follow in their footsteps to assembly or production environments. “We (have) to kind of change the narrative around the dinner table, around the water cooler,” Chatman says.
Maker jobs offer plenty of opportunities for engineers, technicians, scientists, and designers in a variety of industries such as aerospace, automotive, medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and more. Michigan is home to nearly 123,000 engineers — the most in the nation — as well as a skilled trades workforce of more than 250,000, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corp., a quasi-public job creation and support agency based in Lansing.
On the health care side, the MEDC reports, Michigan is home to more than 500 medical device manufacturers that are supported by a manufacturing supply chain of 14,000-plus facilities across the state. More than 11,000 people make up Michigan’s medical device manufacturing workforce, agency figures show.
Michigan also is home to more than 600 aerospace-related companies and has ranked in the top 10 as one of the most attractive states for aerospace manufacturing, according to the MEDC.
Some transportation-focused programs in Michigan rank among the best in the nation, including the curriculum at Washtenaw Community College’s Advanced Transportation Center in Ann Arbor. Other high-ranking programs include university engineering and supply chain courses at schools such as the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan State University in East Lansing, and Wayne State University in Detroit, the MEDC reports.
Whether they’re offering programs that can fast-track students to a job or collaborating with companies to give students hands-on training with industry professionals, high schools, colleges, and universities all are doing more to inform students and promote programs that can prepare them for the maker workplace.
There are a lot of opportunities, and not every occupation requires a four-year degree or the completion of a graduate program. Community colleges across the state and nationwide are increasingly receptive to the needs of employers for skilled, qualified workers. Miller says in recent years, Grand Rapids Community College has been adding degree and certification programs to get people into work quickly. Many of the programs feature embedded industry credentials or prepare students to attain those certifications upon the completion of a given program.
In the past two years, the school has added basic certification programs in mechatronics, industrial electricity, machine tool, and welding to meet the growing need for welders, machinists, and electronics technicians. In addition, a supply chain operations management certificate was added to prepare people to manage the transport and storage of raw materials, inventory, and finished goods from where they’re made to where they can be purchased and used.
Students in these programs also get hands-on experience with industry professionals — and, at times, with the companies themselves. “We have (instructors) who are actively engaged in the workplace who are also very passionate about training and developing the next generation of people to work in their areas,” Miller says.
Schoolcraft College in Livonia and many other community colleges have “stackable credentials” for almost all of their programs — many of them hands-on — including advanced manufacturing, CNC, computer aided design, electronics technology, welding, and mechatronics, says Amy Jones, associate dean of occupational programs for Schoolcraft.
After around 16 credits, students can earn a skills certificate. With 30 credits comes a certificate, and from there, students can continue taking classes until they earn an associate degree. Schoolcraft assists students in getting placed in jobs, apprenticeships, and internships.
In Jackson, Baker College works with high schools to offer an early middle college program in manufacturing-focused areas, says Anca Sala, dean of engineering and IT for Baker College. This allows students to begin college classes while they’re still in high school, and they have the potential to earn the number of credits required for an associate degree by the end of their first year in college.
Student loan debt is something you want to make sure you’re really seriously considering, and (you want to) understand the return on your investment.
— Pam Miller, associate dean, GRCC School of Workforce Development
In Cadillac, Baker College offers a program via Michigan’s Advanced Technician Training Program (MAT2), where companies recruit high school or older students to begin working and take college classes. After two to three years, they can complete the tuition-free program with an associate degree in mechatronics.
Paid training through apprenticeships in a variety of areas — not just skilled trades — is becoming more common for all age groups, ranging from early middle college students to workforce veterans who need new skills. “Then, hopefully, the employer sends them back to us for additional development and training,” Miller says.
Community colleges also benefit from rapid advancements, as companies may send employees back to community colleges throughout their careers to gain new skills. As a result, community colleges across the state are making infrastructure investments to give their students (and working adults) access to the upgraded technology needed to train for these roles.
Case in point: Henry Ford College is working on a $14.9-million project to add 24,000 square feet of space to its 18,000-square-foot Entrepreneur and Innovation Institute for training in such fields as automotive technology, advanced manufacturing, computer-aided design and engineering, robotics, mechatronics, welding, computer programming, cyber security, and systems engineering.
Grand Rapids Community College is working on a $12.7-million expansion of its Applied Technology Center, which is devoted to CNC machining programs and computer information systems, including cyber security. Schoolcraft College expects to finish a 48,000-square-foot Manufacturing and Engineering Center this summer, more than doubling the space of its existing facility in Livonia.
Of course, if someone wants a four-year degree, they should pursue the opportunity. “But you would be in a better financial position to pay for it if you start out at a community college,” Chatman says.
Miller wants to ensure students are aware of the available opportunities. “We want people, regardless of what they’ve heard before, to at least be presented with another perspective and other viewpoints, so they can make their own mind up,” she says.
For those people ambitious enough to dive into engineering or other jobs that will lead to the growth of Industry 4.0 — often referred to as automated factories — a four-year degree is needed, but there are ways of achieving this without breaking the bank.
An increasing number of community colleges throughout the state are implementing transfer or other collaborative programs with four-year universities. This allows students to spend less as they begin their programs. “Student loan debt is something you want to make sure you’re really seriously considering, and (you want to) understand the return on your investment,” Miller says.
Grand Rapids Community College, for example, has articulation agreements with institutions such as Ferris State University in Big Rapids and Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo that provide students with a pathway to a bachelor’s degree in many fields. Students who earn a supply chain management associate degree at Henry Ford College, meanwhile, can continue their studies via transfer agreements with Wayne State University, Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, and Siena Heights University in Adrian.
From there, some schools have additional programs that can ease the transition from a bachelor’s degree into graduate school.
In the Upper Peninsula, Michigan Technological University in Houghton has partnered with Bay de Noc Community College in Escanaba to help students acquire various mechatronics-related credentials. Mechatronics includes elements of mechanical engineering, electronics, computer engineering, telecommunications, systems engineering, robotics, automation, and controls.
Being able to understand all of these areas is crucial for the future of the technology industry, says Michigan Tech program creator Aleksandr Sergeyev. He says the goal is to help students and companies meet and exceed future industry needs.
The technology industry includes the fast-growing field of robotics in the workplace.
The program at Bay de Noc Community College, often referred to as Bay College, starts with introductory coursework in each skill set and enables students to customize the rest of their education to focus on the particular regional industry or employer that most interests them.
A key element in the mechatronics program allows students to gain firsthand knowledge of working robots. In one program, Sergeyev and another instructor work with nine computer science, electrical, and mechanical engineering technology undergraduate and graduate students to develop robotics simulation software called RobotRun that makes the learning experience easily accessible.
Within the program, students can choose to earn a single certificate before entering the workforce, or they can earn an associate degree. With the degree, students have the option to transfer to Michigan Tech to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
Even though they were international, they had no issue finding jobs whatsoever. In fact, several of them had multiple offers.
— Aleksandr Sergeyev, Michigan Technological University
Taking it a step further, Sergeyev says the genesis of Michigan Tech’s graduate degree program in mechatronics was inspired by working with a group of mechanical engineering graduate students, most of whom came from other countries. The students’ mechanical engineering skills, coupled with what they learned in Sergeyev’s specialty of industrial robotics, set them up to land jobs very easily.
“They were so employable,” he says, adding Michigan Tech plans to add a mechatronics undergraduate degree in the near future. “Even though they were international, they had no issue finding jobs whatsoever. In fact, several of them had multiple offers.”
Farther south, at a large business park, students at Western Michigan University have the opportunity to apply their classroom learning to real-world work environments. Since 2000, more than 40 private research and technology companies have filled the 256-acre Business Technology and Research Park near the university’s campus.
Western Michigan officials say the original park has led to 1,400 direct and indirect jobs that have been created or retained, and those who have benefited include WMU students and alumni. Park tenants include SME, a civil engineering consulting firm, Fleis and VandenBrink Engineering, Jones and Henry Engineers, Micro-LAM Technologies, and Newell Brands, owner of such brands as Rubbermaid, Sharpie, and Paper Mate.
Apart from the main campus in Kalamazoo, Western Michigan has a learning facility in downtown Grand Rapids that resembles a new manufacturing laboratory and is operated with Grand Rapids Community College. It’s aimed at cultivating the next generation of engineers, designers, and skilled professionals to serve the manufacturing industry.
The 15,000-square-foot Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Laboratory combines prototyping, training, and small-scale manufacturing with the opportunity for individuals to earn college credits to be used toward a degree or certification. The facility includes 3-D printers and scanners, a CAD/CAM lab, a plasma cutter, a laser cutter, a welding station, metrology equipment, and prototyping tools.
The upper floor of the lab has classroom space and an apprentice tooling and machine lab, where students learn how to program machines to cut and form metal components. The equipment includes a five-axis mill and a Swiss lathe, which is used to create long and slender components for various uses.
GRCC uses the space for its AMP program cohorts, and WMU uses it for part of its certificate program in integrated design and manufacturing. Courses for WMU’s manufacturing engineering technology, engineering design technology, and engineering management technology are offered at the facility for students enrolled in the four-year engineering technology degree program.
At this makers lab, students can get hands-on experience and practice what they’re learning — a growing focus at schools throughout Michigan.
Schoolcraft College hosts an annual open house for middle and high school students and their parents, and conducts middle school classes during an annual event known as Manufacturing Day in October, where the students tour the facility’s labs.
Through the Young Inventors program, middle school students can participate in a science fair-type project, and winners are announced at a banquet. The program doubles as a way to expose young people to networking opportunities.
“We’re trying to, at a younger age, get to people and introduce this so we have time to reiterate the opportunities in these areas,” Jones says. “If we start targeting them in high school, it’s maybe a little bit too late, so we’ve really focused most of our outreach efforts specifically on middle school students.”
Technologies and business solutions can mature in these Michigan incubators.
A2 Health Hacks
A2 Startup Garage
505 E. Liberty
Ann Arbor 48104
Accelerate Blue Fund
1600 Huron Pkwy, Bldg. 520, 2nd Floor
Ann Arbor 48109
3520 Green Court, Ste. 175
Ann Arbor 48105
Biosciences Research and Commercialization Center
4717 Campus Dr.
1415 Civic Center Dr., Ste. 100
CMU Isabella Bank Institute for Entrepreneurship
Grawn Hall, Room 164
Mount Pleasant 48895
CU Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship
3750 Cleary Dr.
Design Core Detroit
460 W. Baltimore Ave., Ste. 100C
Economic Growth Institute – University of Michigan
506 E. Liberty St., 3rd Floor
Ann Arbor 48109
EMU Office of Tech Transfer
200 Boone Hall
1570 Woodward Ave., 3rd Floor
615 S. Saginaw St.
GVSU Muskegon Innovation Hub
200 Viridian Dr.
GVSU Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation
50 Front Ave. SW, Ste. 1127
Grand Rapids 49503
Hope College Entrepreneurial Program
Van Zoren Hall
1401 Presque Isle Ave.
1400 Rosa Parks Blvd.
LSSU Product Development Center
650 W. Easterday Ave.
Sault Ste. Marie 49783
Macomb-Oakland University Incubator
6633 18 Mile Rd.
Sterling Heights 48314
1. S. Main, 7th Floor
Mount Clemens 48043
Michigan Life Science and Innovation Center
46701 Commerce Center Dr.
Michigan Research Institute
401 W. Morgan Rd.
Ann Arbor 48105
MSU Conquer Accelerator
MSU Innovation Center
325 E. Grand River Ave.
East Lansing 48823
MTU Husky Innovate
Minerals and Materials
New Economy Initiative
333 W. Fort St., Ste. 2010
461 Burroughs St.
NSF International Applied Research Center
789 N. Dixboro Rd.
Ann Arbor 48105
419 Golf View Lane
Research at Michigan Tech
1400 Townsend Dr., 3rd Floor
440 Burroughs St.
U-M Center for Entrepreneurship
Duderstadt Center, 3rd Floor
Ann Arbor 48109
U-M Desai Accelerator
701 Tappan Ave., R3200
Ann Arbor 48104
U-M Innovation Hub for Life Sciences Fast Forward Medical Innovation
1160 Huron Pkwy.
Ann Arbor 48109
Wayne State Technology Commercialization
5057 Woodward Ave., Ste. 6400
WMU Starting Gate
WSU Innovation Hub
656 W. Kirby
Source: Michigan Makers research