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Four Ways That Engaging With Schools Benefits Your Talent Stream

Kids Learning 3D Printing In School
Credit: iStock/vgajic

The manufacturing community has long struggled with finding skilled workers, citing, among other things, the misperceptions that manufacturing jobs underpay, are monotonous and involve working in dirty factories. With the adoption of Industry 4.0 — automation and robotics — the task at hand for the industry is as much about raising awareness and creating interest for high-tech careers in advanced manufacturing as it is about changing perceptions.

That’s why manufacturers should be getting more involved with their local schools. According to Bill Padnos, workforce development manager with the National Tool and Machining Association, 64 percent of high school students choose their careers based on their interests and experiences. Engaging with students via factory tours, educational programming and interactive contests helps raise awareness in ways that will help to fill the future talent stream. Plus, the more your region knows about manufacturing, the easier it is to get people interested in manufacturing careers.

Tap Into Established Programs and Networks for School Engagement

Getting involved with your local schools is relatively easy. It just takes the will to do so. There are several existing options to tap into, so you do not have to create something yourself. For example, Catalyst Connection, part of the Pennsylvania MEP and the MEP National NetworkTM, serves Southwest Pennsylvania and has three foundational STEM programs manufacturers can use to connect with students ranging from middle schoolers to high school seniors in 60 school districts. The three programs are:

  • The “What’s So Cool About Manufacturing?” video contest in which middle school students create a video for their peers, parents and teachers about the many interesting career opportunities available in manufacturing.
  • The Manufacturing Innovation Challenge where high school and vocational students engage in research-based experiential learning through partnerships with local manufacturers that are trying to solve an issue.
  • The Industrial Manufacturing Technician Pre-Apprenticeship program, which gives high school juniors and seniors the chance to earn up to seven recognized industry certifications that will help them pave a path toward a possible career in manufacturing.

For each of these programs to work, engagement from manufacturers is critical. The time commitment varies by program but is minimal compared to the potential ROI. Catalyst Connection also provides the “mortar between the three bricks” with additional programs and events to create more engagement and entice the students to pursue careers in manufacturing. These include:

  • Making mobile games such as MechLife, which measures mechanical aptitude, and Cube Cut, which explores manufacturing careers.
  • Sponsoring Manufacturing Day events and activities.
  • Participating in programs sponsored by other organizations, such as the BotsIQ robotic competition and the Fluid Power Action Challenge, a STEM competition.

Engaging With Schools Will Help Build Your Talent Stream

Let’s start with the most obvious direct benefit of having a presence in your local school systems. You are creating a prospect funnel for your future workforce. But don’t think you can simply host a few activities and wait for the next generation of workers to come knocking on your door. You will need to be proactive to stay on young people’s radar screens and reinforce your messages as they near full-time employment.

You also are engaging a wider audience than just students. Consider some of the other benefits:

  • Influencing the influencers. Teachers and administrators who are regularly exposed to local manufacturers will have a more realistic, informed and positive perspective about manufacturing and the career opportunities it provides. Giving them the facts, as opposed to their possibly inaccurate assumptions about the industry, will enable them to better advise their students.
  • Changing the perception for parents. Like teachers and administrators, parents might still view working in manufacturing as a dangerous, dirty and dead-end career. Exposing them to good employers and educating them about advanced manufacturing careers will help change those perceptions.
  • Rallying the community. You never know who may get exposed to your messaging. Residents who learn about your business and the positive effect it has on the community may become advocates who freely dispense that best kind of advertising: word of mouth. Engaging with your community is essential because you never know where you might find job seekers or how they may learn about you.

Payoffs Exist for Short-Term and Long-Term Investments

The choices for school participation will include programs with potential short-term payoffs and some with much longer-term payoffs. Many school districts offer career guidance for eighth graders because students can begin formulating career choices as early as grades six through eight, often influenced by their peers. This is the age at which many girls decide against a career in math or science, for example.

This dynamic is one of the reasons that Catalyst Connection adopted a student video contest for middle school students that was originally developed by the Manufacturers Resource Center (MRC, also part of the Pennsylvania MEP). The contest helps build awareness about robotics and careers in advanced manufacturing. The contest also is timed with another dynamic in mind: Many ninth-grade students are already thinking about whether they are going to pursue a vocation or go to college. Other student programs will aim for a shorter payoff — such as the pre-apprenticeship programs for 11th and 12th graders, which provide a pathway to entry-level employment.

In all cases, when you engage with schools, you are planting seeds for potential manufacturing careers, whether students go to college or not. If you engage your community, the new engineering graduate or software programmer who was exposed to robotics in middle school will have known for years that they could go to work for a local manufacturer.

Learn How to Become an Employer of Choice

In this hyper-tight labor market, you are competing for prospects and attention with employers from all industry sectors. The post-pandemic workforce is all about collaboration and values. Gen Y and Z job seekers want to know that they will be treated well at your company, and they also want to know what value your company provides for its people, community and the world in general.

That’s where marketing and branding go hand-in-hand with recruiting. The way you describe your company to an eighth grader is in many ways how you should be selling your company to current job prospects:

  • Sell the job like you’re selling a product/service.
  • Include what makes your company a great place to work.
  • Describe your culture.
  • Tell your company story.
  • Talk about your learning culture and career pathways.

Being an employer of choice simply means the local workforce chooses to work there over other options. But creating a positive and inclusive workplace culture that successfully attracts and retains talent does not happen by chance.

Support Development, Retention for Your Existing Workforce

Do not underestimate how much your current workforce will benefit from engaging with your local schools. Giving your employees opportunities to break out of their routines and interact with the next generation of manufacturers is not only refreshing, but also will give them the chance to express their pride in what they do and your company. Many employees speak highly of being able to do this kind of outreach because it makes them feel like they are giving back to the community and helps them find meaning in their work.

According to the eighth annual Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT Survey, 61 percent of the millennials surveyed said that they are likely to factor a company’s commitment to the community into their decision when choosing between two jobs with the same location, responsibilities, pay and benefits. Many other surveys have supported the idea that community engagement is important to professional development and employee retention.

Local MEP Centers Can Help You Engage With Local Schools

Your local MEP Center can help you take advantage of grant funding for workforce development at the national, state and local levels. It can also help connect you with awareness programming through its networks of workforce organizations, economic development groups and other regional manufacturers. Experts at your local MEP Center can play a role as intermediary and supplement your internal assets to help you build your talent stream.

About the author

Scott Dietz

For Catalyst Connection, an MEP Center based in Pittsburgh, Scott is responsible for the program development and delivery of STEM initiatives. He works in partnership with nonprofits, school districts, colleges, and economic development organizations on STEM education, manufacturing, and workforce programs.

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