Filling demand in metal manufacturing trades


by Holly Riddle 

We recently covered how the Central Pennsylvania Institute of Science and Technology (CPI) is helping to fill the gap between talent and industry in Happy Valley, preparing young talent for skilled trades and working to alleviate the skilled labor shortage. It’s not only CPI that’s making this effort within the region.  

As of May, thanks to a $4.4 million investment from the Department of Defense and the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation, Penn State is making a huge commitment to creating workforce development programs designed specifically to strengthen the U.S. casting and forging industries.  

According to a university press release, “Nearly one-fourth of the manufacturing workforce is aged 55 years or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2030, more than 2 million manufacturing jobs will be unfilled, according to the Manufacturing Institute. That lack of skilled workers is a concern for the Department of Defense, which relies heavily on cast and forged equipment.

"The department has identified a need for at least 122,000 mission-critical manufacturing personnel by 2028.” 

Image Credits: Penn State University News May 2024

Penn State’s new three-year initiative — dubbed, Metallurgical Engineering Trades Apprenticeship and Learning program, or METAL — will bring together both the Penn State University Park and Behrend campuses and, if successful, make a dent in those numbers. The impact should be particularly felt at home, too:

“The METAL program will build on Pennsylvania’s manufacturing base: Metal casting supports more than 30,000 jobs in the Commonwealth, according to the American Foundry Society. Those workers generate more than $6.7 billion in annual economic output.”  

To learn more, we spoke with Penn State Professor Robert C. Voigt, from the Department of Industrial & Manufacturing Engineering. Along with his peers, Voigt will be working on developing some of METAL’s manufacturing teaching programs, which will include workshops and outreach events for K-12 students, hands-on manufacturing boot camps, certificate and apprenticeship programs and an online curriculum in metal manufacturing. 

Since the whole point of METAL is to strengthen the metal casting and forging industries, tell us a little bit about what those industries mean for the average person. How do these industries impact someone’s day-to-day life?  

The casting industry and the forging industry make complex critical components that are a part of automobiles, appliances and a lot of things…that are made with metal parts.

"It’s a backbone silent industry, if you will. You don't purchase the metal parts that [the industry makes] directly, but they're a part of anything from iPhones to automobiles, kitchen appliances, lawnmowers, etc."

This industry, which used to be the backbone of American manufacturing, now also has international competition in countries across the world, so the metal casting industry and the forging industry are competing not just on the national stage, but on the worldwide stage. That’s okay if you're making simple castings and forgings, but if you're making complicated ones, and if you just need a few, you don't want to go across the oceans to get these products.  

In particular, our whole defense manufacturing supply chain is made up of components from U.S. [casting and forging] companies, so they're the backbone of not only commercial things, but also all sorts of military products, too. 

Why do you think that the talent shortage that this program is trying to alleviate exists? Why are more young people not getting into the casting and forging industries? 

It’s just as simple as how starting decades ago, people started buying brand-name products and brand-name clothing. Now, these students have grown up, they go to our high schools and universities and they're attracted to brand names. If you go to job fairs, you’ll find brand-name companies that sell things to the consumer — it could be Apple, Google, etc. — and long lines of students who think they want to work for those companies.  

These [casting and forging] companies are more invisible. [Students] have never heard of some big casting and forging company, because they don't sell products directly to the consumer, and so [the companies] suffer from that invisibility, for one thing.  

I also think, when you make metal parts, it's the kind of environment, in that factory, where you normally take your shower at the end of the day rather than at the beginning of the day. You're going to be working with things that are heavy, things that are hot — but the amount of excitement that you have, the variability in job experiences and the opportunities are really outstanding.

"Our goal is to show [students] some of those opportunities so that they understand that this is an exciting career."

Why is Penn State uniquely positioned to help fix this problem? 

Penn State University has been involved and worked closely with the metal manufacturing industries, including casting and forging, from its very, very beginnings… There’s been a long line of foundry professors at Penn State, back into the 1800s.  

In the forging industry, the companies are small and medium-sized companies, and they've been hiring Penn State engineers, historically, since the very, very beginning of metal manufacturing programs at Penn State.  

We have wonderful laboratory facilities where we can, for example, melt metal at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit and we can make metal castings and we can forge small products, and as part of our undergraduate engineering programs, we do teach these [skills] to our engineering students.  

This is actually a unique program that combines Penn State University Park with Penn State Behrend. It’s exciting to work closely with them, in that corner of the state. I don't think there's ever been a bigger joint program between the two universities. 

Tell us about the apprenticeship and certificate programs you’ll be working on. 

Our programs, which have been [historically] focused on university engineering students, are now going to expand [as we] develop a curriculum that can be used for students who, when they graduate from high school, want to transition maybe to a university, maybe in engineering, maybe in business, maybe to a vocational training program — but these are all talent skill sets that these companies need. So, we’re trying to bring certificate programs and technology bootcamps to those students. It’s going to start here at Penn State, and we’re giving that curriculum to other universities and programs across the country.  

We have some online early training activities that are going to be up and going in a month. We have week-long bootcamps, where we bring students into our lab and show them the technologies, give them the training. This is designed for anyone 18 years and older, getting them excited and potentially transitioning them directly to a job. We taught our first bootcamp in the spring. We're teaching our second bootcamp in August, and we'll continue to not only teach these boot camps, but also work with other universities and export [the bootcamps] to other universities as well. 

[In the] apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship-type programs, and skill-upgrading programs, we're going to work with companies and develop a curriculum that can help us support the training that they already do. They already do training for their employees. It's sometimes ad hoc, and we're going to try to help coordinate and give them activities that can accelerate that training... By providing some of the curriculum for apprenticeships, we believe that these companies can link into support from the state and U.S. government to help train [talent], which will be key to keeping these industries vital for the next decades.  

As Voigt summed up, METAL “is a magnificent partnership with small and medium-sized manufacturers, with  professional organizations or trade associations… and these educational opportunities, supported by defense manufacturing [and] the U.S. government, will really keep our industry strong, resilient, sustainable and affordable.” Learn more at 


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