How To Inspire Students To Pursue Careers In Manufacturing

“Jeff, what can we do to increase the northeast Wisconsin’s four technical colleges’ capacity to prepare more students for careers in manufacturing?” a prominent manufacturer asked me over a decade ago.  What better invitation for me to ask for more resources, including a sizable financial donation!  However, I knew deep down that the  lack of college capacity was not the main cause of the sector’s talent problem. I replied the problem is  the negative image of manufacturing jobs that discourages people from pursuing careers in manufacturing.  The perception that manufacturing jobs are dirty, noisy, unskilled, and unstable exists among the parents, friends, teachers, and career counselors of America’s students, with media reinforcing this common misconception. Capacity? Not the number one problem.  Finding interested young people? That is the issue.

Instead of being offended, this manufacturer decided to take up the challenge of changing the negative image of manufacturing.  Thus, the Northeast Wisconsin (NEW) Manufacturing Alliance was born.  Conceived and founded in 2006, the NEW Manufacturing Alliance now numbers  over 160 employer members, employing approximately 42% of the manufacturing workforce.  In 2010, northeast Wisconsin technical colleges graduated 424 electro-mechanical, machining, and welding students.  Through the efforts of NEW Manufacturing Alliance, within the past few years that number has more than tripled to 1,378 graduates.  Additionally, 150 students are enrolled in newly created 2+2 electrical engineering technology, mechanical engineering technology, environmental engineering technology, and manufacturing engineering baccalaureate programs.

The NEW Manufacturing Alliance’s vision is to have northeast Wisconsin recognized as a world leader in advanced manufacturing opportunities.  It aims to increase the pipeline of manufacturing talent, improve the public image of manufacturing careers, connect with K-16 and the media, and advance collaborative efforts that promote the health of manufacturing.

The Manufacturing Alliance Recognizes the Northeast Wisconsin Technical College as a World Class Manufacturing Center.

Annually the Alliance publishes a Manufacturing Vitality Index Survey.  A sample of 392 manufacturers with $3,000,000 or more in annual revenue and 25 or more employees are asked their perception of the state of manufacturing, their future plans, and the top concerns they have.  The shortage of skilled workers consistently ranks among the top two concerns.

The Alliance understood that it needed to utilize its current employees as key advocates of the attractiveness of careers in manufacturing.  To that end, it created the manufacturing all-star awards.  Eight to ten individuals are chosen as all-stars from nominations submitted by member manufacturers.  The all-stars are recognized at a newly created Manufacturing First Expo & Conference and featured in a publication that is shared with all the schools and communities in the region.

An annual fund raising dinner celebrates and awards recipients for their excellence in manufacturing and creating K-12 partnerships.  The funds raised have provided over $35,000 in scholarships to students pursuing higher education in manufacturing careers.

Through the use of social media, the Alliance has been able to reach prospective employees, informing them of the skills and credentials needed, the great wages available, and the high-tech nature of manufacturing.  Company tours are provided to students on a regular basis.  Importantly, the tours focus on how the education in which students are engaged is used in producing the product  providing context to the learning that occurs in the classroom.  The Alliance continues to create videos of real employees talking about how they are using the education they received in high school and college. In several instances, manufacturers have helped establish and maintain in-school manufacturing enterprises in which students gain “real world” experiences in manufacturing.  In keeping with the on-going celebration of football in Green Bay, a draft day is held at Lambeau Field.  Students seeking internships are able to visit with multiple employers seeking interns.  Many successful draft picks are made.

Though my involvement in this work, I’ve learned that there are four keys to the success of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance. First, employers must lead the initiative and be actively involved in establishing its goals, engaging in meaningful action, and evaluating the results of its action through the use of metrics.  Second, there must be at least one person, working full-time, to facilitate and provide the administration of the Alliance.  In this case, this person is housed and supported by a local technical college. Third, the Alliance must remain focused on its mission, and not commit to projects outside of it. Finally, it must measure its results and celebrate its successes.

Alliances need not be limited to manufacturing.  In fact, the success of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, has spawned alliances among northeast Wisconsin’s health care providers, insurance companies, and information technology driven firms.

Dr. H. Jeffrey Rafn is the President of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.

The GradsofLifeVoice Forbes team provides thought leadership, research and expert commentary on innovative talent pipelines and related issues such as the skills gap, income inequality, workforce diversity, and the business case for employment pathways. We seek to change employers’ perceptions of young adults with atypical resumes from social liabilities to economic assets. This post was originally featured here.

Business Case, Partnerships, Workforce Development,
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