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September 20, 2013

Professor Suzanne Berger led a commission that interviewed more than 250 companies about the innovation economy. (Courtesy of MIT)

Economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology laid out Friday the kind of manufacturing production they believe the United States will need to sustain an innovation economy.

While the economy is slowly recovering from the financial crisis, unemployment still remains high and many Americans’ incomes are stagnant. In poll after poll, companies have said the problem stems from a shortage of skills in the workforce: employers say they can’t find and hire people with the right capabilities.

What’s At Stake?

MIT Professor Suzanne Berger led a commission that interviewed more than 250 companies, including large American-based multinationals.  At a time when the global economy has fragmented production, Berger told WGBH’s On Campus that U.S. manufacturers will need to deliver products that are unique and different:

“I think that what we need is the kind of production that will allow us to get the great ideas that are coming out of laboratories and off shop floors and out of companies out into the world rapidly. These are production capabilities that are going to be very different than those in this country even ten years ago. So they’re going to take skills that we’re not necessarily educating people for now. They’re going to take capital markets that are going to look rather different than our capital markets today. And they’re going to need this close connection between the innovators and producers."

Advanced manufacturing, Berger says, will allow U.S. companies to produce goods that are difficult for other foreign companies to replicate. And MIT President Raphael Reif thinks colleges and universities should play a more central role in preparing the manufacturing workforce to support that kind of production.

“I think we need to strengthen our community college system and some of our other college systems to prepare the labor force that is going to be needed for this advanced manufacturing kind of approach," Reif said.

Reif wants to galvanize Harvard and MIT’s free online-learning platform, edX, to teach workers the skills they will need. With nearly 40 percent of college students saying higher education is a financial burden, some analysts argue the system should move beyond the traditional credit hour to better align education and workforce development. Reif says it’s time for administrators to take a close look at access and affordability.

"We're going to be dealing with those in the very near future, but I would not like to prescribe right now that I know exactly which solution we're going to have," Reif said. 

Employers argue that colleges and universities are failing to prepare graduates for the jobs of tomorrow. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Patrick Gallagher says public-private university partnerships could address that issue by significantly supporting ingenuity.

“We have a great tool box," Gallagher said. "It includes high-end automation. It includes 3D printing. It includes Big Data and analytics. And what that’s doing is putting an even bigger premium on the speed and agility in turning ideas into products and services.”

On Friday, MIT announced an innovation initiative focused on advanced manufacturing research, policy and online education.

Economists and educators say if the U.S. allows its manufacturing base to further weaken it will be left with an economy built entirely on consumption.

technology, MIT, technology and innovation, manufacturing, innovation, higher ed, new business models

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