Not too long ago, Arizona’s five C’s — cattle, cotton, copper, citrus and climate — were the foundations of the state’s economy. Today, the driving engines are a somewhat different set of C’s: choppers, computer chips, cell structure and cruise missiles. Oh, and climate’s still in there.

Gone are the days of Arizona’s insular economy: we are now part of a global economy, one in which the stakes for our future are high; one in which a student graduating from a Greenlee or Maricopa or Mohave County high school competes for a job against not just his classmates, but high school graduates in China and Germany and India, too.

That’s why education has moved front and center in the discussion of economic development goals for the state of Arizona. Businesses already here, as well as those looking to relocate, must know that they have at their disposal a willing and able workforce that is trained and prepared for the jobs and careers of the 21st century. This skilled workforce will also be the catalyst for future innovation and investments in the state’s major industry sectors – science and technology, aerospace and defense, bioscience and healthcare, and renewable energy – leading to even more economic growth and competitiveness, not just for the state, but also for the nation.

Some of these skills require a four-year college degree; others do not, but what they all require is more rigorous training, world-class knowledge and in-depth skills than have been taught in the past. Students need to be critical thinkers, good communicators and problem-solvers who can work collaboratively. They must be able to see the connection between what they’re learning in the classroom and what they’re going to experience in the ‘real world.’ And they must be well-versed in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) skills.

Along with more than 40 other states, our state Board of Education has adopted the Common Core Standards, grounded in research and evidence, and developed over several years with the input of industry, state superintendents of public instruction and governors nationwide. Now, in 2013, we are well along the way toward implementing in local school districts these consistent, strong benchmarks inspired by the education standards of academically high-performing countries. Assessment of these new, rigorous K-12 standards in English language arts and math will be conducted for the first time during the 2014-15 school year.

Similarly, during the past six years, the Arizona Skill Standards Commission, with the support of the Arizona Department of Education, Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, has developed end-of-program assessments for the state’s high school career and technical education students to ensure that they are workforce-ready when they graduate, regardless of whether they head immediately into the work world or pursue a post-secondary education. These assessments are based on industry-evaluated standards that lead to industry certifications. EVIT (East Valley Institute of Technology) and West-MEC (Western Maricopa Education Center) lead the way locally among the state’s Joint Technical Education Districts (JTEDs). And they must be doing something right: Arizona’s CTE programs annually graduate 90 percent of their students. Statewide, the on-time high school graduation rate is a disappointing 76 percent.

Yet, while CTE is having a tremendous impact on the students and partner industries served, and community colleges systems statewide are doing a terrific job delivering post-secondary, workforce-development programs, how is it possible that the Arizona Commerce Authority reports that 6,452 Arizona employers, big and small, had 52,871 job openings in February of this year and that the state’s unemployment rate in January stood at 8 percent? In the case of manufacturing, the industry I represent, 190 employers had more than 1,045 positions go unfilled. Why?

Manufacturing has its challenges, chief among them a major public perception problem. Just say the word ‘manufacturing,’ and most conjure up pictures of pollution-belching smokestacks of yesteryear’s big-city steel plants. That is hardly today’s reality. Manufacturing has gone high-tech. It’s on the leading edge of innovation and plays a huge role in the U.S. economy, consistently giving back more than is put in. In fact, for every $1 spent in U.S. manufacturing, another $1.48 is added to the economy (Source: National Association of Manufacturers). At the company I work for, employees with GEDs to PhDs use sophisticated process-control software, electronic calibration devices, financial forecasting and product-scheduling programs every day. They use STEM skills as a matter of rote. Yet because of a pervasive, incorrect perception of manufacturing, jobs in our industry and in the many fields that support us go unfilled.

Manufacturing must do a better job of telling its story, not just to students, but also to parents, school counselors and teachers, the people who have the most influence with them. While studies show that the American public believes a strong manufacturing industry is critical to our economic prosperity, standard of living and national security, we steer our children away from careers in manufacturing, in favor of industries we see as more stable, with jobs less likely to be shipped overseas. A 2012 Manufacturing Institute survey found that manufacturing ranked fifth out of seven key U.S. industries that people would consider beginning a career in if they were starting today. Further, just 20 percent of the Americans polled believe their local schools encourage students to pursue careers in manufacturing. This is the case despite the fact that those possessing the advanced skills required to work in today’s highly technical manufacturing facilities earn 19 percent more in wages and benefits than those employed in non-manufacturing fields. In Arizona in 2010, that amounted to more than $76,000/year, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. This is clearly a message we need to get out there.

So why did 1,045 Arizona manufacturing jobs go unfilled in February? Bottom line: There’s a serious skills gap pervading all stages of today’s advanced manufacturing workplaces, from engineering to skilled production. And despite all the good things going on in secondary and post-second education, ‘baby boomers’ are retiring and the skills gap is growing. Employers aren’t finding enough of the skilled people they need right here, right now.

What do we do about that? There’s plenty of work to go around. First, employers have to do a better job of articulating what they’re looking for. They need to invest in their local schools and community workforce development programs. They need to take time out from running their business to get in front of as many people as possible and tell them what they need, or one day they won’t have a business to go back to. “I need employees who can perform this set of skills. I need people who show up to work on time and who take pride in what they do. I need people who are willing to take on challenges and work with others to find solutions. I want people who are interested in careers, not drifting from one entry-level job to the next.”

We need to develop an education-validated, employer-endorsed portfolio of industry skill standards certification, such as the ones developed and piloted by The Manufacturing Institute. Under the auspices of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Arizona Manufacturers Council (AMC), I have been part of a group that has been working for the past year to develop such a skills gap-closing portfolio. The interest in the Arizona Skill Standards/Education Pathways to Career Skills task force has been great, and the 21 education and business leaders who gather each month bring their best practices and vast knowledge to the table in the effort to provide even more paths to manufacturing skills certification. We expect to present our initial plan at the AMC’s annual Manufacturer of the Year Summit May 31 in Phoenix.

In conjunction with similar efforts in other states, our task force is working to arrive at a set of nationally portable, industry-recognized credentials that validate the skills and competencies needed to be productive and successful in entry-level positions of any manufacturing environment. Our goal is to get to the point that an Arizona manufacturing-trained and certified person can present a skills certificate to an employer anywhere in the U.S., who will a) recognize the endorsement and b) know exactly what that person can do. That employer will know that the investment in hiring this person is a smart one because the applicant will be ready to work from day one.

Is the effort worth it? Absolutely. Manufacturing generates wealth for the nation and supports millions of American families, raising the standard of living for all Americans.

We can’t afford to wait any longer: It’s time to educate and train this nation’s next generation of manufacturing talent.


Mark Dobbins is senior vice president for SUMCO Phoenix Corporation. SUMCO Phoenix is the U.S. subsidiary of SUMCO Corporation, an international leader in the production of ultra-pure, defect-free, single-crystal silicon wafers for the global semiconductor industry. SUMCO operates 12 manufacturing facilities located in Asia and the U.S.