February 1, 2017

In the next 10 years, manufacturers will need to hire for nearly 3.5 million jobs. But because of the growing skills gap, 2 million of those positions could go unfilled.

For the United States to maintain its position as a global leader in manufacturing, developing advanced technology isn’t enough. We need to prepare the country’s workforce for the opportunities created by the digital manufacturing revolution, and dispel the outdated perception that manufacturing jobs are dirty, dangerous, and low-paying.

A new series of online courses is one piece of that puzzle. On January 30, the country’s first massive open online course (MOOC) on the topic of “Digital Manufacturing & Design Technology” was released on the Coursera platform, allowing learners from all walks to embark on a new and foundational educational opportunity.

The Center for Industrial Effectiveness at the University at Buffalo (UB) developed the course material to be informative for a wide range of groups—from high school graduates exploring new career paths, to operations managers and business owners looking to better understand the future of their industry.

The Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute is investing in these courses to support the advancements taking place in manufacturing and the companies and workers affected by these changes. The series won’t transform participants into specialized engineers overnight, but it might inspire a recent grad to pursue a career in digital manufacturing, or give a small business owner a sense of the new technology that could improve her factory operations.

Career-oriented learners are likely to see immediate benefits from the series, according to a study by a group of Coursera-affiliated professors. Of the survey participants who cited career goals as the primary driver of enrollment, the vast majority reported some type of career benefit. Eighty-five percent reported qualitative advantages, such as enhancing their skills or improving their new job prospects. One-third said they saw a “tangible” benefit—like a new job or a raise.

This outcome is reported not only by learners but also by hiring managers. According to a report by RTI International in partnership with Duke University, about three-quarters of surveyed organizations viewed MOOCs positively with respect to hiring decisions. Survey respondents also viewed MOOCs as a convenient way to provide content to their employees on highly specialized and technical topics.

The industry is undergoing rapid transformation, and widespread access to information about technological change—and the way it’s changing factories—is essential to ensure Americans benefit from manufacturing innovation.