Innovative Training for the New Collar Workforce is Key to Bridging the Skills Gap

Posted By: Sarah Boisvert, Chief 3D Printing Officer, Potomac Photonics on April 24, 2018

Sarah Boisvert is the Founder and CEO of Fab Lab Hub, a part of the international Fab Lab Network based at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms in Cambridge MA. She is the co-founder of Potomac Photonics, Inc., a laser micro machining company in Maryland that she and partners sold in 1999.

Attend any manufacturing event and one of the most consistent pleas from employers is the need for skilled labor. This has been especially true at recent RAPID + TCT conferences where the latest additive manufacturing equipment and processes are introduced. When Hewlett Packard launched their new production printers at RAPID + TCT in 2016, the comments I heard most were not about the machine’s capabilities, but rather “I’d love to have one of those machines but who will run it for us?”

As most of us know, the U.S. Department of Labor has predicted a shortfall of 2 million skilled workers by the year 2020, which is only a few years away. But what are the factors driving this phenomenon, and how can the problem be solved?

The Skills Gap

Just as computers have invaded the rest of our lives, machines on the factory floor have become digital tools. It is no longer enough to run a CNC machine. Today operators need to be able to read a CAD file, program machines, interface with G-code, as well as collect and analyze data. As Ginny Rometty, the CEO of IBM, phrased it, Blue Collar jobs have become digital New Collar jobs. The skills now needed in Industry 4.0 require workers adept in the digital world. Combine this digitization of factory jobs with the large numbers of retiring baby boomers and the negative image of manufacturing in the general public’s mind, and it’s easy to understand why the industry is experiencing a severe skills gap.

Operator and Technician Skills Research Study

Because I previously owned a laser machine tool manufacturer and job shop, many fab labs in the network of over 1,200 facilities based at the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms approached Fab Lab Hub for help in designing workforce training programs. My first reaction was to study the specific needs of U.S. employers and so, with funding from Verizon, I interviewed 200 manufacturers on the skills they required for operators and technicians in their smart manufacturing facilities.

The results were both surprising, yet expected, from my own manufacturing experience. As many as 95% of the companies called for problem-solving skills as their number one job requirement for new operators and technicians. That would make complete sense since new technologies are evolving at an exponential pace and require critical thinking to run new versions of the machines. Further, we have no idea what will next show up on the factory floor. Historical memory is not available to new workers since the older generation has little or no experience with 3D Printing, artificial intelligence, Big Data, robotics, or augmented and virtual reality. Tooling U-SME Vice President Jeannine Kunz points out, “As the industry shifts to advanced technology and integrated solutions, manufacturers need to focus on building a strong team of skilled workers.”

Problem-solving and the other skills reported in our research immediately led me to think about the traditional training programs that are no longer meeting industry’s needs. I began to search for innovative training programs that could be recommended to bridge the skills gap companies were describing.


New Collar Jobs Require New Training Concepts

Industry needs actually lead directly to an educational model called project-based learning. Authentic problems identified by students are solved utilizing STEM – science/technology/engineering/math – subjects. As Ben Franklin famously said, “Tell me, and I forget. Teach me, and I remember. Involve me, and I learn.” Today, there is a strong trend nationwide for K-12 schools to add project-based learning to curriculum to enhance learning outcomes.

Several workforce training programs are also realizing the power of actively involving students in the educational process. Tooling U-SME goes beyond offering certifications to collaboratively working with manufacturers and their staff to address the specific needs of a production process and develop customized training solutions. Equally important, the SME Education Foundation in 2011 launched the Partnership Response in Manufacturing Education, or PRIME, program that expands high school students’ hands-on learning of manufacturing technologies. Several schools in the PRIME network utilize Tooling U-SME curriculum.


Two-year degrees are often not necessary for the types of tasks required of operators and technicians. Looking toward alternative certifications of knowledge and ability, Fab Lab Hub has launched a Digital Badge program for New Collar jobs. Digital Badges are unique in that the online documentation goes beyond a paper hanging on the wall to an interactive archive of the student’s accomplishments. Using video, photos and essays, students describe the problem and then document the entire process used to solve it. This includes iterative design steps that show critical thinking, hands-on tool skills, math competency and other essential elements. Coursework is passed with a standard testing system, but passing the project section to earn a Digital Badge is the differentiator that employers need to see.

With over 200 Fab Labs in the US, we are able to reach a wide range of students across the country in both urban and rural areas for the hands-on portion of the Digital Badge. The coursework can be taken either online or in person at a local facility. At the moment, we have individual badges in additive topics such as Design for 3D Printing, Fundamentals of FDM and SLA 3D printing, 3D Printing Equipment Troubleshooting, etc., which can be combined into a Master Badge. Other subject areas include laser machining, laser micromachining, laser engraving, CNC machining, predictive analytics, and CAD design.

RAPID 2018 Presentation

In the April 25 RAPID + TCT Workforce Development session I will be providing in-depth detail on the New Collar Job Study and the innovative training programs that will lead to an energized future for our workers in manufacturing. If you cannot make the presentation, The New Collar Workforce, published by Photonics Media Press, is another option for learning more about this important topic.

Innovative workforce training programs are clearly the key to filling New Collar jobs that are often more engaging, offer higher pay, and provide a career track for life-long advancement. Manufacturers need to support educators that are reaching to the future to train our people, which is essential to the very survival of the manufacturing industry.

Tags: "3D printing", "artificial intelligence", "augmented reality", "Big Data", "Digital Badge", "Fab Lab Hub", "Industry 4.0", "Laser Institute of America", "New Collar Jobs", "Photonics Media Press", "Potomac Photonics", PRIME, RAPID, "RAPID + TCT", robotics, "skills gap", SME, "SME Education Foundation", "The New Collar Workforce", "Tooling U-SME", "virtual reality"