Needed: 'manufacturing universities' to keep U.S. competitive

With the tech-driven manufacturing resurgence, a call to establish university programs dedicated to preparing people to lead this economic growth engine.

With the tech-driven manufacturing resurgence, it may be time for the government to push for university programs dedicated to preparing people to lead this new economic growth engine.

That's the view of Robert Atkinson and Stephen Ezell, who call for the establishment of at least 20 institutions of higher education as “U.S. Manufacturing Universities.” In a report published by Brookings Institution, they urge the U.S. Congress to enact a series of specially designated universities in the same way the legislature established land-grant colleges in 1862 to promote learning in “agriculture and the mechanic arts.” These colleges "played a key role in enabling the United States to later take the lead in the mechanization of agriculture and the industrialization of the economy," Atkinson and Ezell state.

The need for such institutions is urgent in an increasingly competitive global economy in which the U.S. is falling behind in the number of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates. As Atkinson and Ezell describe the challenge:

"America competes against a wide array of nations seeking to win the race for global innovation advantage, especially in advanced manufacturing. A new cadre of federally-designated 'Manufacturing Universities' that revamp their engineering programs with particular emphasis on work that is relevant to manufacturing firms while providing engineering students with real-world work experience should be part of the solution."

The report observes "university-based engineering programs can play a critical role in supporting advanced research, particularly in areas of relevance for manufacturers, and can help train the highly skilled workforce that advanced manufacturers need."

The erosion in manufacturing capability weakened the U.S. economy over the past two decades, Atkinson and Ezell add. "Every lost manufacturing job meant the loss of an additional two to three jobs throughout the rest of the economy," they calculate.

Funding for Manufacturing Universities would consist of an annual $25-million grant from the National Science Foundation. Designated universities would be required to refocus engineering programs around manufacturing engineering; increase joint industry-university research projects; add more training of students that incorporates manufacturing experiences through cooperative education or other programs; and provide a Ph.D. program focused on turning out more engineering Ph.D.s who would work in industry.

(Photo: Ford assembly line, via Wikipedia.)

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