America’s Cutting Edge: Colleges and "Federally Funded R&D Centers" are partnering to align technology and talent development

It is time to strengthen the link between workforce development and technology development
Blog Post
April 15, 2021

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan and “skinny budget” include a heavy emphasis on federal investments in R&D. Since World War II, federal investments in research have led to life-changing inventions ranging from the recent COVID-19 vaccine to the Internet, but as a bonus, federal R&D also creates lots of well-paying jobs, directly and indirectly.

The federally funded Human Genome Project supported the creation of over 360,000 jobs—enough to employ nearly all residents of Pittsburgh, PA. Depending on your definition of what constitutes a “STEM” job, a 2020 analysis supported by the Packard and Rita Allen Foundations found that STEM accounts for two-thirds of U.S. jobs, 69 percent of U.S. GDP, and $2.3 trillion in annual federal tax revenue.

But not all STEM jobs go to workers with four-year degrees. The same study found that 59 percent of America's STEM workforce does not hold a bachelor's degree.

As demand for non-degree training programs now outpaces demand for traditional degree programs, it is time to create new non-degree pathways for folks without degrees to secure these coveted jobs born from federally funded research. The need to align technology and talent development, especially at the technician level, was highlighted just this week by William Bonvillian of MIT during a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing around the "Endless Frontier Act" - which proposes creating a new technology directorate at the U.S. National Science Foundation to the tune of one-hundred billion dollars.

I recently came across a pilot online Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining short course, designed by four partners, two of which are federally-funded R&D organizations, that fits the bill:

  • Two federally funded R&D centers: Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), one of seventeen Department of Energy-supported “National Labs” and the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation, or IACMI, one of sixteenManufacturing USA Institutes,” a national network supported by the U.S. Departments of Defense, Energy, and Commerce. These R&D organizations are charged with advancing U.S. innovation and technological capabilities in the manufacturing and energy sectors, many technologies require workers to upskill and reskill.
  • Two public higher education institutions: The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the state’s land-grant university, and Pellissippi State Community College.
The federally-supported Manufacturing USA Institutes are charged with advancing R&D and workforce development in fourteen key advanced manufacturing technology areas. Institutes have a footprint touching most of the United States.
The U.S. Energy Department's 17 National Labs tackle critical scientific challenges through large-scale, complex R&D challenges that emphasizes turning basic science into technological innovation.

In “CNC machining,” computer programs guide the motions of tools that shape materials and parts, and workers are freed up to complete complex tasks not well suited to automation like quality control and design.

The new course, which assumes no prior knowledge about machining, helps students and workers understand the relationship between CNC machining parameters, like “spindle speeds and cut depths” during machining. These relationships help machinists know the right parameters to avoid “chatter,” which stems from cutting tool vibrations as the tool shapes materials. Chatter can reduce part quality and result in parts being discarded or hand-finished to remove the chatter marks. Both increase cost and reduce productivity.

How did this unique set of partners come together to pilot a non-degree workforce program?

The course was supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment program awarded to ORNL to establish “America’s Cutting Edge (ACE).” The Defense Department enlisted IACMI to manage the program because IACMI had the expertise needed to execute workforce programs.

According to Adele Ratcliff, the Defense Department’s IBAS program director, ACE is “intended to help the United States recover the technical and manufacturing leadership position.”

The course was designed by Tony Schmitz, an engineering professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and a Joint Faculty member at the ORNL, after noticing a skills gap—students and manufacturing talent weren’t accounting for “chatter” in CNC machining.

Tony Schmitz of University of Tennessee, Knoxville and ONRL pictured with student Leah Jacobs

The course includes 6 hours of online instruction that covers technical aspects of CNC machining which is followed by a one-week, in-person training which allows students to gain hands-on CNC machining experience.

There is no cost to participate in the program, and all who finish receive a certificate of completion and 0.6 continuing education units (CEUs) from Pellissippi State Community College, and a free copy of a textbook co-authored by Schmitz.

The course launched in December 2020 and attracted more than 1,000 participants across forty-two states in less than 100 days, including students from community colleges, universities, high schools as well as incumbent workers—it was designed to serve a diversity of learners and as a complement to what is taught in existing two and four-year programs.

Beyond the upskilling components, Schmitz noted that the program has shown promise to increase interest in manufacturing jobs which are often well-paying but struggle to attract Millennial and Generation Z talent, especially women and people of color.

No outcomes data yet, but some employers have validated the course’s value proposition

The online hybrid course doesn’t have any specific labor market outcomes to report so far. Roughly 30 percent of people who start the course have finished it – compared to the twenty-five percent completion rate at Tennessee community colleges overall.

Still, employers are seeing value in it. Third Wave Systems in Minnesota saw such value in the program that it’s having its entire workforce complete the course. Terry Houle, an engineering manager at Third Wave shared that the course “helped our employees gain a competitive edge and better serve our customers.”

When asked if the course was worth the time, Third Wave employee said yes, noting that the course was one of the better upskilling programs they've participated in. Houle shared that he hopes to see more short courses coming from ACE.

Timely, as ACE just released a second course module focused on “metrology.”

Looking towards the future, Schmitz dreams of “nothing short of revolutionizing US machining.” He plans to forge new relationships with small to medium manufacturers to offer the upskilling program to employers who need it the most.

IACMI isn’t alone in partnering with higher ed to align technology and talent development. For example, the AIM Photonics Institute is working with liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and others to create photonics certificate programs.

Schmitz’s hope, shared by his colleagues at IACMI and Oak Ridge, is that more education providers at all levels develop deeper relationships with national labs, Manufacturing USA Institutes, and employers to develop affordable, scalable short-term workforce preparation programs.

The Center on Education and Labor at New America (CELNA) has launched a new research and storytelling effort called New Models for Career Preparation. Know of a quality non-degree college program that leads to quality careers? I'd love to hear from you. Get in touch by email or on Twitter. I’m at and on Twitter @ShalinJyotishi.

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