Technology exec tells Senate panel to sharpen focus on workforce

By: - December 15, 2022 6:45 am

A technician uses a Human Machine Interface (HMI) to manage an industrial process. Rockwell’s products and systems operate critical infrastructure such as power generation and water treatment facilities. (Courtesy Rockwell Automation)

The federal CHIPS Act signed in July has the potential to strengthen U.S. manufacturing, and it can do so more effectively with a focus on developing the country’s high-tech manufacturing workforce, a Wisconsin industrial technology executive told senators in Washington this week.

The new measure, “although a great step towards codifying industrial policy, will fall short of its ambition unless we build and cultivate the workforce necessary to succeed,” said David Vasko, senior director of advanced technology at Rockwell Automation in Milwaukee, at a Senate hearing Tuesday. 

Building that workforce will require attracting more people to manufacturing careers, improving the skills of people already working in manufacturing, adopting more advanced automation tools to boost productivity and ensuring that small and medium-sized businesses aren’t left out in the drive to strengthen the nation’s manufacturing sector, Vasko testified

Vasko was one of two Wisconsin industrial executives to appear at Tuesday’s hearing of a Senate subcommittee on manufacturing chaired by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.). HUSCO Automotive President  C. Todd Zakreski also testified. 

The CHIPS and Science Act (its full name) was enacted to bolster the U.S. microprocessor industry as a COVID-19 pandemic-driven shortage of computer chips critical to countless manufacturing industries threatened to stall the nation’s economic recovery.

David Vasko
David Vasko (Courtesy of Rockwell Automation)

“U.S. manufacturers are facing a new era of uncertainty and change because of global supply chain disruptions, and greater demands for mass customization,” Vasko said in his written testimony. “These upheavals have spurred new opportunities, driving reshoring” — returning manufacturing to the U.S. from overseas — “and localization of manufacturing — both a great opportunity and a challenge” for small and medium-sized companies.

The CHIPS Act aims to support that reshoring trend, and doing so will require strong, sustainable workforce development, Vasko said in his testimony and in an interview with the Wisconsin Examiner. 

By 2030, he testified, manufacturers may have openings for nearly 2.1 million jobs, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. Contrary to perceptions of factory work as “low-skilled, low-paying, menial and hazardous,” the new manufacturing jobs promise high-paying careers, he added.

He called on the U.S. Commerce Department to issue regulations that promote increasing skills for existing workers as well as new ones entering the workforce.

Since 2017, Rockwell has been part of that effort through its Academy in Advanced Manufacturing. In partnership with the Milwaukee-based staffing company Manpower, the academy trains military veterans who are returning to civilian life. 

The academy is a 12-week program. “It’s 30-40% hands-on learning,” Vasko told the Wisconsin Examiner. “You want to look at the minimal employable skill — what does it take to get somebody in the door” at a workplace. 

Graduation isn’t the end of the training process. “Over the next year they’re going to be learning a lot on the job — and you want to make sure that the employers understand that, too,” Vasko said.  “And you have to make sure that your training is as much hands-on training and is the type of training they need.”

While the pandemic and its supply chain shocks helped drive the effort to bring suppliers closer to their customers and become less dependent on a single source, it hasn’t been the only reason for that trend. 

“As we get to more customized products, shipping things all around the world just isn’t really viable — you need to do things more and more locally,” Vasko said.

That doesn’t mean the global economy is dead. But he sees it becoming more local around the world. 

Vasko views advanced automation as another key to manufacturing growth. And while it has long been assumed to kill jobs, such dire predictions are “off the mark,” he said. “The data shows that countries that have invested in automation have hired more people — it has driven productivity.” 

Most of the attention in the CHIPS Act has been paid to boosting U.S.-based manufacturing for computer chips. But it also includes provisions “to retool a lot of our ecosystem, even the older semiconductor foundries and make them more productive,” Vasko said. “There’s tremendous opportunities there.” 

He sees in the CHIPS Act the outlines of a constructive role for government industrial policy. “This is something that we’ve seen in many countries,” Vasko said, from Germany to South Korea to China. 

In the U.S., the federal Manufacturing Extension Partnership program has provided resources and consulting for small and medium-size manufacturers since the late 1980s. Manufacturing USA, under the wing of the U.S. Commerce Department, was established in 2014 to foster a stronger national manufacturing infrastructure; it sponsors 16 institutes focused on specific manufacturing technologies and disciplines. 

The CHIPS Act builds on those examples. “The fact that we’re coming back and increasing the funding for public programs to make manufacturing more competitive seems like a natural follow-on,” Vasko said, and he sees a growing interest in integrating those and related initiatives.

The 16 manufacturing institutes “are doing remarkable things,” he said. “If you could take those things they’re doing and push them out through the [manufacturing extension partnerships] and technology hubs to all the small and medium manufacturers — not just in urban areas, but the rural areas as well, the areas that are more isolated — I think that’s going to have a huge impact.”


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.