December 15, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has shaped the future of work in innumerable ways, with the acceleration of digital transformation across all industries representing one of the most impactful changes. Businesses that relied on traditional processes and tools quickly realized remote collaboration and cloud-enabled design technologies are no longer items for a workplace wish list; they are mission-critical for success in the post-pandemic economy. As we continue to adjust to the new normal, the next generation of digital tools has been rapidly embraced by most, and those that fail to keep up will find themselves at a disadvantage.
Investments in technology and advanced digital tools alone won’t unlock business potential without a well-trained workforce, and the foundation for these skillsets can’t wait for on-the-job training. There is an increasing disconnect between the skills needed to fill today’s job vacancies and academic curricula. According to a pre-pandemic report from Wiley Education Services and Future Workplace, 46% of employers believe college doesn’t adequately prepare students to enter the workforce. The looming skills gap for medium- and highly-skilled workers is projected to leave millions of jobs unfilled by the end of this decade, and potentially result in trillions of lost GDP.
Ultimately, the best way for the private sector to develop and find the right employees is by creating its own workforce of the future through partnerships with universities. Partnerships with academia have become essential, especially across technical disciplines like engineering, for ensuring students have access to the latest software, mechanical tools and industry methodologies. Hands-on experiential learning is key to growing technical skills, but also to building students’ interpersonal experiences by actively collaborating with peers and mentors. As workplace automation becomes even more prevalent, it is critical for students to have skillsets that are complemented by machine capabilities.
Aviation and Academia Meet in Kansas
Wichita State University (WSU) is placing applied learning at the forefront of its curriculum. Located in the “Air Capital of the World,” with more than 200 aerospace companies and 300 manufacturing facilities in the area, WSU and its students are at the center of the aviation industry. The university made a major investment by devoting 120 acres to an Innovation Campus, home to purpose-built facilities that support hands-on applied learning with nearly one dozen spaces built in partnership with private industry. Today, more than 300 Airbus employees work in the Airbus Americas Engineering Center on the WSU Innovation Campus, and Deloitte is also constructing a Smart Factory in a brand-new net zero building on the Innovation Campus.
Dassault Systèmes’ 3DEXPERIENCE Center was one of the first facilities on WSU’s Innovation Campus in 2017, equipped with state-of-the-art 3D design technologies, as well as simulation and collaboration solutions. The 22,000-sq.-ft. facility includes large-scale Multi-Robotic Advanced Manufacturing equipment, as well as 3D printers, reverse engineering solutions, 3D Immersive Reality technologies and more, to build foundational skills for innovative product development and modern manufacturing. Students learn by working on the same technology platform used across the aviation industry, ensuring they are prepared to hit the ground running on day one of their first job.
Students and researchers at WSU’s National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR), located on campus, work with the U.S. military to bolster the sustainability of its legacy aircraft by creating a library of 3D scans and manufacturing-quality digital part models as part of creating the digital twin of the B-1B Lancer bomber and UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter. Not far from campus in an ITAR-secure NIAR facility, more than a hundred students work alongside NIAR experts to disassemble, clean, scan and digitally catalog every part from each airframe. These multi-year projects will produce a digital twin of each airframe and enable sourcing replacement parts for these older aircraft using modern manufacturing methods. For students seeking jobs in the aviation or manufacturing industries, this applied learning through partnership with the private sector and government has provided skillsets that will stand out on any resume.
Planning for Skills and Labor Gaps of Tomorrow
Jobs that will need to be filled 30 years from now may not exist today, which means education for these future opportunities doesn’t yet exist. It’s imperative that schools and companies work together to understand what skills will be needed on the near horizon and plan curricula accordingly.
To meet the demand of the future skills gap, it is important to understand what humans are good at versus robots. Technology is only as good as the people running it. With digital transformation providing technologies like AI-driven generative design to speed up product development, a skilled human still needs to determine the best materials, logistics, partnerships and use cases. Rather than training students to strive for machine-like efficiency, holistic interdisciplinary understandings of sustainable manufacturing and business operations provide value for any jobs the future holds.
One challenge of forward-looking skills training is the cost of being an early adopter. When planning curricula and facilities for the jobs of the future, schools are often burdened by the high costs and complexity of technologies that are only beginning to mature, or worse, they make investments in skills training for technology that fails to be broadly embraced across the private sector. Again, partnerships with business leaders and technology providers offer more than just capital for investment. The partnership ensures educators and industry are fully aligned and that students learn future-proof skills that will be in demand when they enter the workforce.
As technology moves faster, schools need to have stronger lines of communication for in-demand skills and the ability to pivot with market needs, which corporate partners can provide. That visibility, combined with robust investment in technology and skills training, will in turn allow educators to solve one of the biggest problems hindering private sector growth: finding skilled workers.
Building the workforce of the future is more than just a series of technology investments. Long-term relationships allow industry to act as a true partner in guiding students toward the skills they’ll need upon graduation and advising academia to invest in facilities that speak to long-term industry needs. Ensuring students are equipped to thrive among the ongoing wave of digital transformation is what will ultimately determine the success of entire industries in the coming years.
Jeff Smith is Senior Director, Aerospace & Defense Strategy & Innovation, Dassault Systèmes.