Miguel Gomez, 25, was working in retail and computer repair when he was offered a job as a field service technician for EnvisionTEC—a company that manufactures 3D printers.
Now, after working his way up through the company for five years, he is their North American Support Manager—all without a bachelor’s or associate degree.
“To get any position in any technical-related field, typically there is a degree required,” he said. “To this day, I still haven’t been able to get myself a degree yet.”
There is a palpable fear in the manufacturing industry that technological advances will destroy jobs. However, 3D printing has been opening up a space for new jobs that tap into a variety of skill levels. A study done by the global management consulting firm, A.T. Kearney estimates that 3D printing will create 2-3 million jobs by 2027.
Like EnvisionTEC, companies from GM to Boeing and Invisalign, are capitalizing on this technology and with that comes the potential for jobs—and not all of them will require an advanced education.
“I think the main qualities that they saw in me was the critical thinking and troubleshooting; at least having the intrigue of going in and finding a solution to a problem,” Gomez said. “As a manager now, that’s what I’m looking for in people.”
Although manufacturing jobs have been on the rise for the past decade, the overall employment of the manufacturing sector is nowhere near where it was at its peak. Part of that decline has been attributed to automation, according to experts.
“The economy is always creating new technologies that can augment the workforce,” said William Kerr, Ph.D. in economics and co-director of Managing the Future of Work at Harvard Business School that researches the impact automation has on the labor market.
3D printing, or additive manufacturing as it is referred to in the industry, is a process where a three-dimensional object is created based off a software file, known as a computer-aided design model. From the design file, the printers add layers of resin, among other materials, on top of one another fusing them to create a final product.
An analysis of 3D printing jobs in the U.S. by Alexander Daniels Global—a recruitment company for additive manufacturing –showed that employment is increasing in the sector. Approximately 161,343 people are currently employed in 3D printing-related jobs, up from 68,200 five years ago with an average growth rate of 11.28% per year.
However, it’s important to note that this encompasses an extremely small area of manufacturing—approximately 0.9 % of the industry that employees over 12.8 million workers.
Kerr says that 3D printing won’t bring manufacturing employment levels back up to where they were previously. But it might keep jobs in the sector that would otherwise be lost to areas of the economy with higher workforce demand like healthcare.
“I think this is going to be something that keeps more workers in that sector of the economy and stems further declines in their share of the economy in terms of workforce,” said Kerr. “People are going to be a complement to the technology, and that will help increase their role.”
Not everyone is so optimistic about 3D printing’s potential for job creation though, regardless of skill level. Timothy Laseter, a professor at the Darden School of Business at UVA who specializes in innovation and emerging technology, is skeptical about additive manufacturing’s potential.
“It has the ability to create new jobs,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to create a lot of jobs.”
He cited customization, prototyping and the creation of high-value products like rocket engine parts as areas where additive manufacturing has the greatest potential for growth but said at the moment it’s not suited for mass production due to cost restraints.
“It’s not going to replace mass production and therefore it’s not going to create millions and millions of jobs, in my view,” Laseter said. “The cost is too high.”
In addition to costs, another obstacle the 3D printing industry faces for employment growth is education. Experts cited a lack of in-house training facilities, inadequate retraining programs and insufficient government funding for education as factors that hinder job growth.
“You’ve got to think about the people who are going through the educational system currently and who are entering the workforce,” said Stephen Ezell, vice president of global innovation policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank that focuses on technological advancement.
“You also have to be concerned about the welfare of people in the workforce and, where necessary, retraining and upscaling them to new technologies,” he said.
Sarah Boisvert, who is the founder of Fab Lab Hub in Santa Fe, is honing in on the need for training in additives. Fab Labs are part of the Fab Foundation which aims to create spaces where people can come and learn innovative technologies– like 3D printing.
Sarah founded the lab due to the area’s demand for additive manufacturing-related hires, but lack of applicants with the skills necessary for the positions.
“The manufacturers were just desperate for workers, and they could not adopt new technologies, like 3D printing, unless they really had the people to run the machines,” she said.
She runs the lab in conjunction with Santa Fe Community College to help individuals acquire the skills they need to work in additive manufacturing-related roles.
Hank Wikle, 25, has been interning at Sarah’s lab for the past nine months while he is working towards getting his degree in computer programming at Santa Fe Community College.
He works closely with the 3D printers, preparing designs, troubleshooting and operating the machines to create custom molds for jewelers and other clients. Before the internship, he had no prior experience working in 3D printing but says that the basic skills he’s learning in his coursework helps.
“I think they’re a lot of skills that overlap between computer science and additive manufacturing, particularly when it comes to problem-solving and troubleshooting,” he said.