Manufacturers Play A Vital Role in Encouraging STEM Careers

April 17, 2020 Rachel Pilgren-Kane

 

Manufacturing Engineer Mitch Engleka works on the P4 Coupler assembly in Southco’s Concordville, PA manufacturing facility.

By Al Frattarola, Director of Global Engineering & Technology, Southco, Inc.

One of the most significant and widely reported challenges facing U.S. manufacturing has been the ongoing difficulty in finding and attracting skilled talent to meet the demand for skilled production and engineering personnel. Over the next decade, an estimated 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled, and the skills gap could potentially result in 2 million of those jobs going unfilled.

The future of manufacturing is largely in the hands of the younger generation: It is projected that by the year 2020, about 25% of the U.S. workforce will be composed of older workers (ages 55 and over). As that generation begins retiring, it is vital for manufacturing to identify ways to combat the risks and potential fallout of failing to attract new, young people to careers in the manufacturing-related science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professions.

There are many reasons why young people are choosing to pursue careers in industries outside of manufacturing. Manufacturers need to understand the factors contributing to the shortage of skilled workers and learn how leading U.S. companies are investing time and resources to take a proactive role in STEM outreach, educating the next generation about the opportunities available in manufacturing and engineering.

Counteracting manufacturing stereotypes

There are a number of societal factors that make it difficult to attract young people to careers in manufacturing. These factors impact attracting both skilled line and production workers, as well as professionals with degrees in engineering, project management, logistics, computer sciences and other disciplines.

One challenge is longstanding impressions about U.S. manufacturing that bear little resemblance to current realities. Many younger generations entering high school or college only know the manufacturing industry from what they see in their textbooks: early photos from the middle of the twentieth century showing steel mills and other industrial sites as dirty, dark, unattractive places to spend a lifetime career. It’s no surprise that many individuals, both young and old, have developed a negative perception of what it means to work in a modern manufacturing environment.

The current reality in U.S. manufacturing is far different: today’s plants are light-filled, climate-controlled and comfortable workspaces filled with dynamic opportunities to create and produce a wide range of innovative products. Unfortunately, it is no longer common practice to bring schoolchildren or vocational-technical students in to tour factories and provide a first-hand look at what modern factories are like.

So, unless a young person’s family is working in these evolved facilities, it may be difficult to overcome stereotypical impressions. In the past 20-30 years, the U.S. has seen significant contraction in many manufacturing segments, with plants closing or moving overseas. Although U.S.-based manufacturing has seen growth in recent years, young people whose parents and grandparents have experienced plant closures and layoffs will be even more reluctant to consider manufacturing careers.

Another challenge manufacturing faces is the competition, i.e. Silicon Valley. The generation currently in high school and college is the first fully digital generation, and its members have spent their formative years online and on their smartphones. Young men and women with strong math and computer skills often envision their future developing the next big app or inventing the next Facebook — so drawing a picture of the opportunity to have successful, impactful careers in manufacturing demands significant effort and investment.

Challenge of sustaining a skilled workforce

Also contributing to the shortage of a skilled workforce is the lack of STEM education and skills development among workers, in part as the result of a gradual decline of technical education programs in public high schools.

Other factors contributing to the shortage of skilled workforce include loss of knowledge due to experienced workers leaving the workforce. Many of the skilled tradespeople such as tool and die makers, manufacturing technicians, maintenance mechanics and production technicians have gained skills over decades of work, with many of the skills self-taught. Unless a sufficient number of young people with a basic set of technical skills are brought onboard manufacturing operations, those skills could be lost.

One significant new skills challenge that manufacturers need to consider is the growth of smarter automation systems and the advent of Industry 4.0. As more manufacturing operations invest in this technology and transform the way their companies operate to make maximum use of this technology, the engineering background and experience needed becomes much more diverse. Engineers working in these environments need a broader skillset than just expertise in mechanical systems or pneumatic systems.

Southco Project Engineer Zachary Walker checks the progress of a product cycle test in Southco’s Product Evaluation Lab.

Cutting-edge companies need personnel with backgrounds and capabilities that combine electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer systems and networking, plus backgrounds in production data analytics. While it’s not necessary that they have all these skills on day one, if they come from schools that are designing and supporting cross-disciplinary engineering programs, they have the foundation to work more effectively with a wide range of technologies.

Investing in student outreach, education and support

Today, manufacturing companies of different sizes and across every industry segment are responding to these challenges with specific programs and investments. Their goals are twofold: First, support stronger STEM education programs in local secondary school districts and at technical schools, community colleges and four-year institutions in the communities where they operate.

Equally important, they are also engaging in early outreach to students as they explore their career opportunities, providing a variety of support efforts including paid internships and even part-time work to give them hands-on, real-world experience of their potential future in manufacturing.

Outreach — the earlier the better — has proven to be a valuable and effective approach to developing future engineers and technical production staff. The start can be relatively small and simple: arranging “show and tells” at local schools (on career day, for example) to explain what a company manufactures, with sample products and exciting videos that show off what actually goes on within the local factory’s walls.

At some companies, these initial outreach efforts have evolved into scheduling visits to a local factory or engineering facility. These types of activities can be targeted to high schools and local colleges; participation in college job fairs is also productive.

Companies can also benefit by encouraging existing engineering personnel to participate in industry advisory boards at local universities and community colleges, particularly ones with engineering and technical programs. By doing so, the company has the opportunity to build relationships with faculty and potential student hires, promote internships and co-op programs and contribute advice on the school’s curriculum and the types of equipment the schools purchase to equip their own labs.

Another popular way to build relationships and cultivate talent is to sponsor and support robotics teams and robotics competitions at the high school and college level. These have become increasingly popular in recent years, and by supplying engineers who act as advisors to teams, as well as supporting the events and prizes, manufacturers and engineering companies can raise their profile and contribute to building a stronger public profile for STEM education and careers.

It’s also important for manufacturers to offer opportunities for students to have a range of direct experiences with different types of manufacturing and engineering careers. Many high school STEM programs now require that students be exposed to different disciplines, working with mechanical engineering, manufacturing engineers, quality control and testing personnel and others, to get a well-rounded picture of their future opportunities.

Building effective internships and co-op programs

Internships, co-op programs and part-time work opportunities for college and technical students are all effective tools for attracting engineering talent in a competitive industry environment. These types of programs do require investments of time and resources from across the manufacturer’s organization, but the payoff can be significant: with the right programs, it’s much easier to turn interns into full-time engineers who will be dedicated to the company from day one.

Many manufacturers have found that the key to successful internships is giving the students real-world challenges — throwing them right into the day-to-day challenges that manufacturers face in developing products, solving production line problems or other tasks. One of the benefits of this approach is it gives current students the sense that their skills and creativity can truly be applied in a manufacturing or engineering setting and leads to tangible results — in some cases, interns have actually helped design improvements to existing manufacturing systems.

 

If possible, internships should be paid; moreover, many companies are discovering that the best way to secure interns for long-term employment after graduation is through offering opportunities for part-time employment after their internship is completed. Many internships are scheduled for two or three months during summer break; with that limited timeframe, it can be difficult for interns to truly have an impact or get fully involved in productive projects. Part time employment not only provides additional experience working with a manufacturer’s engineering or production teams but extends the time where the intern is producing the most value for the company.

Many college students need part-time work no matter what they’re studying. By finding budget and time to bring a student on for 10-15 hours a week, extending their participation in the company past their internship can cement their appreciation of the opportunities in manufacturing while they make a substantial contribution to a company’s projects.

Also, word-of-mouth is valuable: once a student-turned-part-time-employee lets other students know that an internship at a particular company can be a first step toward regular employment, attracting other interns will be made easier.

Investing in STEM outreach pays dividends

To be successful, companies need to strongly encourage engineering and professional staff to make the time to support internships and outreach to STEM students and programs in the community. Developing a network of professionals who can devote 5% of their time on a monthly basis to these efforts and spreading out the responsibility rather than saddling a few individuals will help ensure that outreach efforts are productive. Plus, getting managers and engineering staff out of the office and interacting with the next generation of production workers and engineers can be very rewarding.

For companies that ask, “All this STEM outreach seems like a lot of effort … what’s in it for our company?” the payback can be immediate and substantial. There are costs associated with hiring recruiting agencies and working through multiple candidates to fill each spot; in contrast, if a company has strong STEM outreach and internship programs, talent can be developed in-house and their abilities and value accurately assessed, saving time and money when bringing them onboard.

The difficulties finding and attracting talented young people to manufacturing careers will not go away by themselves. However, there are proven solutions to these challenges, based on showing the next generation of engineers and technical people that manufacturing companies offer them an opportunity to have rewarding careers that solve real-world challenges and let them apply their talents and creativity to help produce and deliver the products the world counts on today.

From Summer Intern to Full-time Engineer

Mitch Engleka was a student in Pennsylvania State University’s Bachelor of Engineering program at the university’s Penn State Great Valley campus in Malvern, Pennsylvania. The Multidisciplinary Engineering Design (MDE) program at Penn State is very hands-on: There are guest lectures, field trips to engineering and manufacturing companies, and a required internship.

One field trip he took was to Southco, a global engineering company that creates access hardware for the transportation and electronics industries, including latches, handles and hinges at its Concordville, PA headquarters and manufacturing facility. “While I was visiting the factory, I dropped off my resume for a summer internship. The tour showed me how clean and dynamic and cutting-edge the company was, in terms of a manufacturing operation, so seeing it and the kind of work they did really appealed to me.”

His internship was successful, and during Mitch’s final year, he only needed to go to school part-time to complete his degree. “Southco was very supportive and offered me the opportunity to work three days a week while I went to school for two days. I got the chance to have extra experience working in a manufacturing environment that I wasn’t able to get during the internship.”

During his last semester, Southco partnered with Penn State to sponsor a team of students, including Mitch, to work on a senior “capstone” project: automating the quality inspection process for a sliding cabinet latch. For the project, the team built an attachment for the production equipment that would test the strength of the latch, relying on cameras and sensors to perform the audit.

“It’s rewarding to work on a project that you know a company will use,” said Engleka, who is now employed with Southco full-time as a manufacturing engineer. “The capstone assignment — along with my internship — prepared me for a career in manufacturing. In fact, on the Monday after graduation, I started full-time at Southco.”

  

 

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