The 21st-century digital factory is a far cry from the manufacturing plants where our grandparents or parents earned a middle-class living. What were previously blue-collar jobs for operators and technicians on the factory floor are now cool digital jobs. Running a 3D printer or robot, CNC machine or laser welder takes more specialized skill than operating analog predecessors but does not require a four-year, or in some cases even a two-year, engineering or science degree.

New collar jobs provide a wealth of well-paying, engaging career paths in clean, high-tech digital factories. The opportunities are especially bright for young people who are digital natives, and with the U.S. Department of Labor predicting a shortfall of over two million skilled workers by the year 2020, demand is unusually high.

The Rise of the Co-Bots

The new collar workforce works collaboratively with the robots and automation tools that do the boring, laborious, often dangerous tasks, while people design, program, monitor, collect data from and repair their non-human collaborators. While there is fear in the media that robots are out to get our jobs, at least at the current time, human ingenuity is still needed. After all, technologies are mere tools that allow humans to innovate. And innovating, creating, designing and analyzing are where the magic – and the fun – happens.

New Collar Jobs Demand New Training Models

A new world of manufacturing naturally leads to new training and education methods. Although the tools are now digital, advances in manufacturing equipment mean an engineer is not required for daily operation. That, combined with the urgent need for workers, means that employers are looking at training that more naturally aligns with actual job requirements.

Project-Based Learning

Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Tell me, and I forget. Teach me, and I remember. Involve me, and I learn.” Project-based learning programs are engaging and mimic real-life problem-solving situations. This is especially important for new collar jobs in manufacturing, where hands-on experience cannot be replaced. In a recent survey of 200 companies, 95 percent said problem-solving was the most important skill needed on the factory floor. Increasingly, K-12 programs incorporate project-based learning, especially where fab labs and makerspaces are on site. Public schools such as MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland, Ohio have developed entire school-wide curricula that use fab lab tools for every subject, including history, art, languages and English literature to deepen learning and ensure student success. The same is true in post-secondary schools like Cal State Bakersfield in California and Odessa College in Texas, which use fab labs for hands-on training.

Digital Badges

Digital badges are an increasingly popular micro-credential that verifies an individual’s mastery of a topic, but the platform, which was originally designed by Mozilla and IBM, provides employers with so much more. Rather than a generic certificate of an overall achievement, the online badge has the ability to store an active demonstration of the student’s work through photos, documents and video. When combined with problem-based learning, the credential can show the student defining and solving a problem, including all the critical thinking and iterative steps along the way. These skills are in high demand by employers in the manufacturing industry. Many software platforms offer digital badges; for example, Autodesk, a creator of CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing) design software, gives digital badges to students for the skills most needed into today’s digital factory.

In recent years, community colleges have started offering digital badges alongside college prep courses to meet market demand. The skill-specific badges can be combined into master badges. For example, a variety of 3D printing design and operational badges can be combined into a master 3D printer service technician badge. The badges do not demand the advanced training needed for pre-engineering two-year degrees but still meet employer needs.

In order to provide manufacturing employers with skilled labor, we must change old-school methodologies and embrace innovative ways to train the new collar workforce. And time is of the essence if the manufacturing industry is going to provide opportunities for our people to enjoy satisfying careers that can support their families in the middle-class lifestyle that was enjoyed by past generations.