Aug 02, 2018 12:40PM ● Published by Emily Stevenson
For many here in the one-time textile capital of the world, manufacturing conjures up images of greasy, sweaty factory workers surrounded by smoke and dust and machines that are ready to blow at any moment, sending high-velocity parts into the air and toxic chemicals—the kind that turned the Joker’s skin white and his hair green—everywhere. For many, working in a factory, day in and day out, is no laughing matter.
But manufacturing today is much different. Just ask Nikolaos Rigas, associate vice president of strategic initiatives and executive director of the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research.
“We have to get people to realize that manufacturing, or careers in manufacturing, are not what they were 220 years ago,” Rigas says, noting that factories were dirty places with poor reputations.
Gone are the days of the Reedy River textile mills. Taking their place are the spic-and-span robotic wonderlands of BMW in Greer and Boeing in North Charleston.
But there’s a hitch: Too many people are living in the past.
“The question becomes, ‘How do we break that?’ How do we get them to understand where manufacturing is today and where it is going in the future?” Rigas says.
At a recent talk before investors at Upstate Alliance, Rigas talked about the challenges of changing this mindset among high school students and encouraging American undergrads to pursue masters and doctorate degrees in the programs that bring home-grown innovation to the world of advanced manufacturing. Greenville Business Magazine followed up with him the next day.
“A lot of schools have robotics classes. That is what manufacturing is today,” Rigas says. “It’s an exciting dynamic place.”
According to Rigas, we’ve got to spread the word that advanced manufacturing involves innovative work in the automotive, aerospace, medical device, and home appliance industries.
During his Upstate Alliance talk, Rigas mentioned that when he first entered the manufacturing world three decades ago, some workers had no high school degrees, while others didn’t know how to write. Today, manufacturing requires workers who know how to hit the books and use their hands.
Although manufacturing is an economic driver across the state—factory work accounted for 16 percent of the state’s job growth from 2011-2016 and employed 11 percent of Palmetto State workers, according to Clemson University—Rigas notes that far too few South Carolina undergrads in science and engineering pursue advanced degrees.
Instead, a significant chunk of masters and doctoral students are foreign nationals who return home after their schooling comes to an end to help their nations and communities.
For example, of the 97 doctoral degrees in engineering Clemson University awarded in 2015-2016, 65 were to foreign nationals, according to an American Society for Engineering Education study.
Clemson is not alone.
The ASEE notes that the “proportion of master’s degrees awarded to non-resident aliens increased by more than 11 percent, from 47.0 percent in 2015 to 58.1 percent in 2016.”
Furthermore, foreign nationals “accounted for 54.8 percent of doctoral degrees awarded in 2016, maintaining a rate that has been consistent since 2008.”
And it’s these individuals who earn advanced degrees, Rigas noted at this talk, that are often at the forefront of innovation, a problem if a high portion of the best scientific and engineering minds in American schools leave the country.
Why is this happening? Simply put, money.
Rigas says that the promise of a good salary is a “big driver” in convincing domestic students to forgo getting master’s and doctorate degrees. “It was a hard decision for me,” he says.
“I did it because I had a passion for technology,” Rigas adds. “How do we convince students who have this passion that this is the right thing to do?”
In many ways, it comes down to exposure, to let them see what today’s manufacturing is like. If educators and companies can give students a glimpse into this world, gains can be made. Get them that internship at BMW and maybe you’ll begin to change minds.
Rigas says, “The thing we have found out: It is hard [for us] to change a parent’s opinion. It’s easy for a child to change a parent’s opinion.”
Recently, Clemson University announced the creation of its Center for Advanced Manufacturing.
According to Clemson, CU-CAM will be a “one-stop shop” for research and education programs in advanced manufacturing, with the ultimate goal being economic growth and job creation. It will also serve as the umbrella organization for several initiatives including the Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Center, the Center for Aviation and Automotive Technological Education Using Virtual E-Schools, and the Vehicle Assembly Center.
The focus on the automobile industry is not a surprise given its growing effect on the state. In fact, BMW, Michelin, and others are existing university partners.
Last month, Clemson named Mark Johnson the head of the CU-CAM.
“This is a race,” he said. “Every other state in the union is also going in this direction, and every nation in the world would love to have the land-grant universities that we have in the United States. We’ll have some ups and downs, but at the end of the day, how do you end up making sure the whole I-85 corridor region becomes the go-to place for manufacturing?”
Clemson says CU-CAM is working with “industry leaders to develop the center’s programs, which could revolve around a variety of topics from robotics and virtual reality to artificial intelligence and lightweight materials.”
“There will be individual jobs that will be replaced by robots, but we’ll have a lot more jobs as a result,” Johnson said. “It’s not just people building the robots. We’ll have jobs you haven’t even thought of yet. When the steam engine replaced the water wheel and the horse cart, yes, some people who were tending the horses lost their jobs. They could have never envisioned people running CNC mills, but that’s a direct outcome of technological advancement.”