When America Works started and I was charged with creating the MEP National Network’s first-ever workforce conference, I set for myself one simple goal: create a conference that I would want to go to. There are so many conferences that I have to go to, either because they’re important for networking, or because the content is really important, or because it’s an important national partner … but I don’t actually want to go. My goal was for my national conference, FireWorks, to rise above the rest. Like its namesake, FireWorks should be exciting, engaging, and something that you look forward to every year. While I’m excited to recap the conference for you, if you don’t have time, just take three minutes and watch the highlights video below. I’m sure you’ll see people you know!
Now that FireWorks 2023 is over, I’m thrilled to tell you that we’ve successfully reached that goal. Through the contributions of 30 different speakers, and the support of numerous MAGNET staff, we brought together and educated 93 Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) workforce professionals (and partners!) from more than 20 states. We added 20 participants this year, which demonstrates that we’ve hit a nerve, and we’re doing something right. Most importantly, we’re hitting our goals: We’re sharing valuable information across the network, building relationships between our workforce colleagues, and strengthening our workforce community nationally.
The conference kicked off on Wednesday, June 21, at Tooling U-SME, where our good friend and partner Greg Surtman shared the latest offerings in online and virtual reality education. We then hopped on a bus to Lincoln Electric where participants explored the world’s largest manufacturer of welding equipment and consumables. As workforce professionals, it’s critical that we stay close to the beneficiaries of our work, so we concluded our visit there with an hour-long panel discussion featuring graduates of MAGNET’s two signature workforce programs: Early College Early Career (ECEC) for high school students, and ACCESS for low-income or formerly-incarcerated adults. Meeting real people who are facing real challenges and who have launched real careers in manufacturing is always a rewarding experience — and if you aren’t inspired after hearing their stories of resilience and triumph, then you’re in the wrong field!
Our next visit was to manufacturer Jergens, a medium-sized, family-owned company like so many of our MEP clients. There, Jergens CEO Jack Schron shared his company’s story – and, most excitingly, its unique approach to workforce development. Jergens is a proud second chance employer, and the company also welcomes people with autism and other special needs. I was excited to write about it back in February 2022, and that program has only blossomed in the 18 months since.
Next up was a full day of sessions on Thursday, June 22.
And what a full day it was! Participants were encouraged to tour the new MAGNET headquarters, followed by team-building exercises and discussions and moved into “What We Learned from Our Innovation Grants,” featuring a dozen MEP Centers sharing what they learned through the America Works Innovation Grants. We broke those down into five categories:
Next, we dove deep into a session called, “How Our Center Approaches Workforce.” This dissemination of best practices is so important because, as I like to joke, MEP Centers are like ice cream flavors: We’re all made of milk and sugar, but there are literally 51 different flavors of approaches to workforce across our country. This session was a huge hit last year because sharing these approaches can only inspire and illuminate our work. This year, we spotlighted a new set of five Centers detailing their structures, programming, consulting offerings, and more:
After a lunch where participants were encouraged to mix and mingle, we moved into a session called, “What’s Working in Workforce?” During the next hour, Centers shared their promising best practices with the goal of inspiring others to replicate and scale what’s already been proven to work. We broke these into two buckets, with three programs in each bucket:
For a break from the frontal presentations and structured sessions, we moved into “Collaboration Conversations.” These were simply meant to get participants discussing a topic of interest in a free-flowing and stimulating way, with skilled moderators guiding the dialogues. These Collaboration Conversations attempted to answer critical questions facing our Centers, such as:
To wrap up this packed agenda, we had our annual DEI-focused session, which we called, “Unleashing Your Inclusive Leadership Superpowers.” You see, regardless of the size or focus of a MEP Center, becoming a more inclusive leader is critical to better internal management and external engagement. We wanted participants to sharpen their inclusive leadership skillset, which will be used at Centers for many years to come! This session was led by NIST’s Dr. Jeanita Pritchett, who sparked an interactive, energizing workshop.
So, where do we go from here? I’m glad you asked! The MEP National NetworkTM has gained a wealth of knowledge to better assist manufacturers across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. We look forward to making the Network event more efficient and effective. And, of course, we’ve already started planning for FireWorks 2024. To all my fellow MEP Center folks, hope to see you there!