The US Is Building Factories Again, But Who Will Work There?
America’s drive to compete with China in manufacturing requires lots more skilled workers. Tennessee’s experiment with free technical school, and its close partnerships with business giants like Volkswagen and Nissan, offer a glimpse of the future.
Back in the mid-2010s, when there were only a few thousand electric vehicles on the roads of Tennessee, the state launched an initiative — unique in the US at the time – offering free community and technical college to nearly every adult.
Half a decade later, with EVs at the heart of the most ambitious US industrial policy since World War II, that landmark decision is paying off – and also pushing up against its limits. The state has approved a $1 billion boost for technical colleges.
Federal incentives are driving investments in the electric-car industry worth more than $100 billion. Every state wants a piece of the action, and Tennessee is getting plenty. It’s a lynchpin of the new Battery Belt that stretches from Michigan to Georgia. More than $16 billion in EV capital has poured into the state since 2017. Last year, Ford Motor Co. broke ground on a giant new plant near Memphis that’s slated to open in 2025 and churn out half a million electric trucks per year.
But the drive to reboot manufacturing and claim national leadership in strategic technologies is about to crunch up against a shortfall in trained workers — and impose new demands on technical education all across America.
Conversations with more than two dozen people — including executives, policy makers in federal, state and local governments, educators and students — highlight the challenges involved, even in states like Tennessee that got ahead of the curve. They include how to pitch manufacturing as a career to digital-age teenagers, and tailor trade schools to the needs of business. It’s an area where economists reckon the US, after decades of de-industrialization, lags behind powerhouse manufacturing nations like Germany.