President Barack Obama, earlier this week, introduced a series of executive actions which are intended to strengthen U.S. advanced manufacturing. A White House statement explains the actions would build on the final report of Obama’s Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP), which recommends measures to promote innovation, build a skilled workforce and improve the business climate.


Actually, the plan addresses a number of critical actions to take but a few in particular caught my eye. The first is that NASA and the departments of Defense, Energy and Agriculture will invest more than $300 million in three emerging technologies considered crucial to the country’s industrial competitiveness: advanced materials including composites and bio-based materials, advanced sensors for manufacturing, and digital manufacturing. The Administration’s research investments, matched by private sector efforts and resources, will drive advances in manufacturing high-tech materials, “like new steel alloys that are twice as strong and lighter than today, new processes to eliminate reliance on foreign supplies of critical materials, cut the time to test and prototype a design by half, and replace chemicals made using oil with those made from plants harvested on American farms,” according to the White House statement.


Another key initiative outlined by the administration is to spur innovation by providing manufacturers with access to new and expanded state-of-the-art facilities like those at national labs. Toward that goal, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and NASA are taking steps to connect industry and universities on research and development and develop “technology testbeds” within Federal research facilities where companies can design, prototype, and test a new product or process.


The final action I am interested in following is a plan to expand effective workforce development strategies by creating an apprenticeships grant competition. This fall, the Department of Labor will launch a $100 Million American Apprenticeships Grant Competition to launch new apprenticeship models in high-growth fields such as advanced manufacturing, align apprenticeships with pathways for further learning and career advancement, and scale apprenticeship models that work. AMP members Dow, Alcoa and Siemens have already launched new apprenticeship pilots and developed a “how-to” guide for other employers looking to use apprenticeship as a proven training strategy, the White House statement explains.


I was also interested to see some reaction to the announcements. For example, Jim Wall, executive director of the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, says in a U.S. News & World Report article that while the “whole package” of Obama’s plan is important, reinvestment in apprenticeship programs, which were much more common for manufacturers about four decades ago, is particularly exciting for the industry.


“With an apprenticeship program that’s done right there through the company, that’s where the rubber meets the road … people are employed, they’re working through that company,” Wall says in the U.S. News & World Report article. “It’s not like what I call in higher education the ‘pay-and-pray’ model, where you pay your tuition and pray you get a job at the other end. With an apprenticeship program, there’s a guaranteed return.”


These aren't President Obama’s first manufacturing improvement endeavors. The administration has previously launched four manufacturing innovation institutes; invested nearly $1 billion to upgrade community colleges to train workers for advanced manufacturing jobs; expanded investments in applied research for emerging manufacturing technologies; and launched a new initiative to match the talent of returning military veterans to in-demand jobs, including in advanced manufacturing. However, these new executive actions do demonstrate a commitment to, and belief in, U.S. manufacturing.


What are your thoughts on Digital Labs and apprenticeship programs? Will those programs help ease the so-called skills gap?