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Lighting Up Manufacturing Workforce Development: The America Works FireWorks Conference Recap

People holding the Flag of USA

Workforce “FireWorks” were on full display in Cleveland, Ohio, on June 22 and 23! We all know and love fireworks; who hasn’t “ooh’ed” and “aah’ed” as they light up the sky? Fittingly, these workforce programs, ideas, innovations, and collaborations had exactly that same impact, expanding the horizons of more than 70 workforce professionals from inside and outside the MEP National NetworkTM. A day and a half of networking, sharing, brainstorming, and collaborating was exactly what these professionals were looking for to illuminate their local workforce ecosystems.

“The FireWorks conference truly lived up to its name and intention as it sparked something wonderful in our team. It served as a chance to bond, learn, and dream of a stronger manufacturing ecosystem across the country.”

– Aarin Clemons, Polaris MEP (Rhode Island)

About the Conference

For almost a year, the America Works team has planned an ambitious, workforce-focused conference bringing together Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) practitioners working nationally in more than 40 areas of manufacturing training. Our goals were simple: 1) share the best practices in workforce that are making an impact in our communities, and 2) strengthen our workforce community nationally through intensive networking and structured discussions. Based on the participant feedback we’ve received so far, we really “lit up the night” with the attendees’ vibrant discussions and shared inspiration.

FireWorks Recap Slideshow
The first-ever FireWorks Conference at MAGNET in Cleveland was amazing!

“FireWorks 2022 was a fantastic experience to learn and network. The content and contacts were great, and the conference overall was very well organized. I am looking forward to attending again next year!”

– Lisa Pustelak, NWIRC (Pennsylvania MEP)

Day One: Experience Cleveland from a Workforce Perspective!

Day one was all about seeing Cleveland in a new light. The conference started with a firsthand look at Tooling U’s new virtual reality training suite. For many MEP practitioners, this was their first time entering virtual reality, and their eyes were really opened to the possibilities of leveraging this new technology for manufacturing education.

Next, participants toured MAGNET’s (Ohio MEP) new headquarters, which will open in the fall of 2022. The Manufacturing Innovation, Technology, and Job Center, which will serve all of Northeast Ohio, is far more than just 56,000+ square feet of innovation, technology, and workforce development facilities. It is a new vision for advanced manufacturing, with an accompanying regional blueprint that will lift many residents out of poverty and into rewarding careers in manufacturing.

The first day ended with an exciting, meaningful dinner at EDWINS Too, the event spaces for EDWINS Restaurant and Leadership Institute. Founded in 2013 with a mission of training formerly incarcerated men and women for careers in fine dining, EDWINS has more than 400 alumni – and a recidivism rate of less than 2 percent! In addition to amazing food and the chance to network with MEP colleagues nationally, the lessons learned and best practices from this exciting nonprofit restaurant are applicable to manufacturing workforce development.

“The FireWorks conference provided a lot of great information in an efficient manner. It was well attended, which gave the participants ample opportunity to meet new people and share ideas. I thoroughly enjoyed it!”

– Staci Miller, West Virginia MEP

Day Two: Let’s Get Down to Business

FireWorks attendees experienced a dazzling display of workforce best practices on the main day of the conference. The day started with an optional tour of MAGNET’s current building, seeing the latest MAGNET engineering projects and equipment. Participants interacted with cutting-edge Industry 4.0 training technologies, such as virtual and augmented reality, that are improving worker training.

The first official session was an icebreaker and table discussion designed to get everyone interacting around critical issues related to workforce development. Session two was focused on the first round of America Works mini-grant winners, who shared what they learned from their innovative local program. Our speakers were:

  • Polaris MEP and CONNSTEP: What we learned from engaging students in manufacturing through virtual reality
  • Catalyst Connection: What we learned from launching Pittsburgh’s first-ever workforce conference
  • NWIRC: What we learned from launching a CNC training program for people on the autism spectrum
  • Montana MEP: What we learned from launching an in-prison manufacturing training and placement program
  • Columbus State: What we learned serving rural adults through intensive training bootcamps

Given that MEP Centers work at a state or regional level, session three focused on “how our Center approaches workforce.” Five Centers – MAGNET, Catalyst Connection (Pennsylvania MEP), Purdue MEP (Indiana), Oregon MEP, and Oklahoma Manufacturing Alliance – presented how they staff, sell, finance, and target workforce programs in their Centers. Participants loved the opportunity for a deep dive into different, locally tailored MEP models.

After an unstructured networking lunch, we dove right back into work with a presentation about what new manufacturing workers want where two young trainees from MAGNET’s Early College Early Career program described what drove their interest in manufacturing, what keeps them coming back, and what they’re looking for from their new manufacturing careers. Also, a job coach from MAGNET’s partner nonprofit Towards Employment shared her experience working with underserved adults through the ACCESS program, mentoring and guiding them along their paths to manufacturing careers.

With so many MEP Centers launching their first forays into fundraising, the fourth session was a meeting with workforce funders. Three fantastic women – representing a national bank, international manufacturing company, and local family foundation – shared insights that will help MEP Centers successfully fund their own workforce programs.

The next session answered a question that every manufacturer should be asking themselves: “How can I become an employer of choice?” We had three presentations from national organizations that offer their own answers to that challenge: Tooling U, ProCertX, and Rhabit Analytics. Many MEP Centers were excited to follow up on the ideas this session generated.

Our final session was geared toward improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) across the American manufacturing industry. Of course, we’re talking about a huge country with more than 12 million manufacturing employees, so DEI is going to look different in every state and region. But together, attendees discussed ways to move from operational excellence to inclusive excellence, both within our Centers and our client base.

To close the conference with a bang, I delivered one of my typical cheesy dad jokes, telling the attendees, “As the great manufacturing CEO Katy Perry once said, ‘Baby, you are all fireworks.’” These individual “sparklers” are lighting up various cities around the country. The challenge, as I wrote recently, is to scale these individual fireworks into one cohesive explosion of innovation and collaboration nationally. 

“I was super excited to have multiple strategic takeaways in multiple areas, including new ways to approach workforce development as well as how to better reach underserved populations. The summit touched all of the critical areas that I had hoped to engage in and provided multiple takeaways that I plan to bring to our leadership to support strategic planning and execution around workforce. Well done FireWorks!” - Kelly Flerlage, TechSolve (Ohio MEP)

“I was super excited to have multiple strategic takeaways in multiple areas, including new ways to approach workforce development as well as how to better reach underserved populations. The summit touched all of the critical areas that I had hoped to engage in and provided multiple takeaways that I plan to bring to our leadership to support strategic planning and execution around workforce. Well done FireWorks!”

—Kelly Flerlage, TechSolve (Ohio MEP)

What’s Going On Next Year?

We’ve tentatively scheduled June 21 and 22 for FireWorks 2023, so please mark your calendar! And if you’re from outside the MEP National Network and you’d like to be invited, mfieldman [at] manufacturingsuccess.org (subject: FW%202023%20Invite%21) (please reach out) to Matt Fieldman and we’ll add you to the invite list! 

About the author

Matt Fieldman

Matthew Fieldman is currently Executive Director of America Works, a nationwide initiative to coordinate the American manufacturing industry's training efforts, generating a more capable, skilled, and...

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