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Despite long-held fears that technology could one day eliminate manufacturing jobs, evidence suggests that technology may instead create job openings too numerous to fill.

Technologies powering growth in advanced manufacturing – such as artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and analytics – are likely to create more jobs than they replace, predicted Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute in the 2018 Skills Gap in Manufacturing Study. Indeed, the firm expects 4.6 million manufacturing jobs to hit the U.S. market by 2028. The real problem, it points out, is that half of all these jobs may go unfulfilled.

The clock is ticking to provide a trained workforce large enough to fill new jobs on the horizon, as well as those that will soon be vacated by retiring Baby Boomers – the generation responsible for advancing manufacturing from factory to fabrication lab. However, there is a shortage of young adults pursuing related education and training for which experts point to lingering misconceptions about the industry as a likely culprit.

“The manufacturing industry continues to suffer not just a skills gap, but also a perception gap,” said Lynda Weatherman, president and CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast, which commissioned a 2018 study with FloridaMakes and The Corridor Council in which less than half of respondents agreed manufacturing careers offer stability, security and good pay for their children. “Although we have a lot of work to do to shift the perception, the opportunities for our students and citizens in manufacturing continues to strengthen by inherent high wages, job availability and skill advancements.”

Students in the new Space Coast Consortium Apprenticeship Program at Eastern Florida State College are among a new wave of talent that is willing to look beyond common misconceptions. The students receive a sweet deal – a two-year college scholarship, a paid internship and a guaranteed full-time job with the same company upon graduation – supporting Weatherman’s statement and providing incentive for just about anyone to change their career path.

“It’s really amazing to know that I have a job after all of this and get to start my career so early,” said Kate Borelli, an apprentice who helps build satellite panels at the Swiss defense and aerospace technology company, RUAG. Borelli’s family has always regarded manufacturing as “good-paying, honest work,” she explained. Growing up on the Space Coast, she was inspired early on to pursue a career in aerospace.

“I always wanted to be part of that. When I saw an opportunity, I jumped.”

Borelli is among the Space Coast Consortium Apprenticeship Program’s eight apprentices of which four just graduated from high school in May and are now fully immersed in training for a career in advanced manufacturing. In just two years, they will all earn a professional certificate in mechatronics and an associate degree in engineering technology.

Powered by a public-private partnership between the college and several of Brevard County’s aerospace manufacturing companies – OneWeb Satellites, RUAG Space, Rocket Crafters and Knights Armament – the Space Coast Consortium Apprenticeship Program was designed to strengthen regional workforce by creating a pipeline of highly skilled workers.

“Creating this project is very important,” said Kai Schmidt, OneWeb Satellites’ director of human resources and facilities, in a news release about the program. “We have to develop our own workforce and keep them in Florida, and by working hand in hand with the college, we are investing in them.”

Since 2017, Schmidt has been instrumental in creating the consortium, partnering with colleagues on the Space Coast and at Eastern Florida State College to address the shortage of highly skilled advanced manufacturing workers.

Students attend classes two days per week at Eastern Florida State College and, on the other three days, they receive on-the-job training alongside advanced manufacturing professionals at the company where they will work full time after graduation. During the program, students also enjoy a fully paid trip to Germany, where they engage with foreign apprentices in a similar program for advanced manufacturing. Some also tour their company’s European facilities.

“At Knights Armament, they’ve been going above and beyond to get me hands-on experience applying what I’ve been learning in the classroom,” said Christian Arias, an apprentice for the Titusville company known for its advanced developments in weapon design and accessories for the U.S. military.

Unlike Borelli, whose sister worked in manufacturing at L3Harris Corporation, manufacturing was not in Arias’ DNA. “I had no idea what the heck mechatronics was when I started.”

With the goal of helping his family financially, Arias was initially enticed to take a mechatronics class at Valencia College during which students earn credentials as a certified logistics technician and certified logistics associate on the track to become an industrial maintenance technician – a job in which Arias would be guaranteed a wage of up to $20 per hour.

While Arias may have taken the class at Valencia College for financial gain, he stuck around for the challenge.

“By the end of the course, I decided to apply for the apprenticeship program [at Eastern Florida State College] because I was having so much fun… It’s like playing with a bunch of Legos, except they’re fancier.”

Mechatronics marries mechanical, electrical and computing systems to support advanced manufacturing. While it is critical to the manufacture, maintenance and repair of high tech aerospace products – including satellites – mechatronics has a wide variety of applications in any field where it’s necessary to make or fix things. As Borelli, Arias and their classmates described, mechatronics training will enable them to become “Jacks of all trades” capable of not only assembling satellites, but also repairing a car or fixing electrical wiring in a house. Both program educators and students believe this widely applicable skillset will prepare the apprentices for lifelong job security.

“Everything is becoming automated,” said Arias. “As the manufacturing field changes, some jobs will be replaced by automated systems, but you will still need somebody to fix those systems when they break.”

According to Eastern Florida State College’s associate provost for advanced manufacturing, Frank Margiotta, this consortium model is the first of its kind in Florida and one of only two in the nation. Eventually, the college hopes to offer similar programs that train fiber composite technicians and computer numeric control machinists. These are the types of advanced manufacturing fields that check all the boxes for parents looking to steer their children toward stable, secure and well-paying jobs with an average wage 22% higher than the national average and one of the lowest employee turnover rates, according to Deloitte.

Further, as the Manufacturers Association of Florida’s Space Coast Advisory Board found, 70% of local manufacturers offer tuition assistance. For students in the Space Coast Consortium Apprenticeship Program, this means the potential to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree for free or at a reduced cost while continuing to work for one of the consortium’s participating companies.

Someday, perhaps they will even become the parents, siblings, mentors and friends who inspire others to pursue careers in advanced manufacturing and serve as the leaders of a nationwide shift in perception that helps close the workforce gap.

A regional economic development initiative of: