A “Cool” Approach Addresses Skills Gap and Promotes STEM

STEM education: Kids creating robots with teacher.

There is a widening skills gap in manufacturing, with projections showing that as many as 2 million jobs may go unfilled in the decade from 2015 – 2025. The reasons behind this gap have been well-documented. Baby boomers are approaching retirement age and leaving the workforce, creating job openings that need to be filled. Meanwhile, growth in the U.S economy continues after shaking off the impacts of the last recession. Millennials are now entering their peak consumption years, buying homes and starting families, increasing demand for manufactured durable goods such as furniture and appliances.

At the same time, manufacturing itself suffers from an image problem, based on perceptions of factories of the past, with workers locked into performing repetitive tasks, and machinists covered in cutting oil. Parents pushed their children towards earning 4-year college degrees, with the allure of career options that offer flexible schedules, varying work assignments, and telecommuting as standard benefits. The result is that fewer students considered the skilled trades as a viable employment option.

A Different Approach to STEM

While there are many initiatives across the country to encourage young students to study STEM subjects and pursue technical careers, one effort does this in a way that pairs learning about manufacturing with developing video production skills. The “What’s So Cool About Manufacturing?” contest is an annual event that allows students from across the state of Pennsylvania to explore different career options in manufacturing by meeting with a local company, and then creating and filming a video that explores that company’s products and services. This opportunity provides the students with experience in planning, scripting, and shooting video content, while at the same time exposes them to what it is like to work in the manufacturing industry, and the different types of career options offered.

The contest, which is funded under a 2013 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development’s “Discovered in PA, Developed in PA” program, was created by the Manufacturer’s Resource Center (MRC) and provides students and their teachers (who function as coaches) with camera equipment and video production software to use in creating their entries. The contest has expanded to a total of eleven additional states under the Dream It. Do It. brand that was created by the Manufacturing Institute in Washington, DC.

For the 2018 contest, Billet Industries and students from the Eastern York School District in York, Pennsylvania, partnered together to create their video entry, which was one of 14 videos in the South Central PA contest sponsored by Mantec, a local manufacturing consulting firm. The entry won an award from the judges for best editing.

In their video, the students explore Billet Industries’ capabilities as a high-quality precision machining company, which include CNC Turning, CNC Milling, Precision Grinding, Broaching, Prototyping, Welding, and Assembly.  The video captures interviews with the staff and includes footage of the production floor, processes, and materials used to fabricate products.

Company president and owner, Troy Billet, is a strong proponent of the need to both educate and offer opportunities that encourage students to pursue manufacturing as a career. “We do this at every opportunity possible, by hosting HS shop classes, volunteering at STEM events, and in this case taking part in the video contest for Middle Schoolers,” says Billet. He also recognizes that not only is the message important but that there is power in having the right messenger as well. “This contest was unique in that the students themselves crafted the message about why manufacturing is something to consider.  It’s a fantastic opportunity because these students are promoting manufacturing to their peers, and peer-to-peer communication is more effective than if the message comes from an adult.”

Troy Billet and Billet Industries also support efforts that encourage all of their employees to stay engaged with programs that help promote STEM and address the skills gap. The company provides two paid volunteer days for their staff to use, allowing them to participate in initiatives and programs that help students learn more about manufacturing as an industry and career choice.

Creating Opportunities

In addition to education, Billet believes in offering opportunities that encourage the next generation of workers to enter manufacturing careers. The company offers an apprenticeship program that allows participants to “earn and learn,” as they advance their skills through practical, hands-on training and exposure to production processes. Students can find that their perceptions about manufacturing are quickly changed. As Troy Billet explains, “Modern machining is nothing like what it is perceived to be. Operating today’s equipment requires a high degree of skill, technical knowledge, and the ability to learn and evolve as the technology is changing rapidly.”

Billet is also a firm believer in the value of these career opportunities for being both a gateway to stable employment and for providing skills that are transportable. Billet explains that these are opportunities to create what he calls “family-sustaining careers,” ones that allow those who complete the internship to earn a wage in the $22 - $25 an hour range. On top of which, he states “…these skills are highly transportable. If they decide to relocate to a different area of the country, they have a solid background to enable that transition and to secure a position in an industry which values their skills.”

Insights

Addressing the challenge of getting the next generation of workers to consider manufacturing careers starts with creating awareness through education, and requires follow-through by offering opportunities that can fulfill the promises. Manufacturing businesses who are concerned about the skills gap would do well to emulate Billet Industries by adopting similar strategies in their own companies and local communities. Specific actions include:

  1. Working with middle and high schools in the region to offer programs that support STEM and manufacturing. Examples of this include:
    1. Hosting a high-school shop class
    2. Sponsoring and attending classroom events such as trips to local science museums
    3. Participating in classroom speaking engagements that educate students about the practical applications of science, math, and technology.
    4. Providing students with access to educational tools aimed at STEM
    5. Offering tours and field trips that provide demonstrations of plant technology
  2. Developing apprenticeship programs that allow students to “earn and learn”, thereby moving them toward practical jobs and careers within modern manufacturing.
  3. Investing in training programs to allow younger employees to enhance their skills as technology advances in the decades to come. 
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