Three E’s — exposure, engagement and experience — help young people choose to pursue manufacturing careers. Fox Valley Technical College’s manufacturing summer camps provide the first two components, and organizers hope that will encourage participants to seek experience and, eventually, the final E — employment.
For Mike Cattelino, manager of apprenticeships for FVTC’s manufacturing and agriculture technologies division, the camps offer a bit of a course correction.
“When you look at the average age of our students, it varies somewhere between 27 and 28,” he says. “Where have they been for 10 years?”
FVTC’s camps, most of which are for middle school students, aim to build that engagement and exposure early, so perhaps future generations will spend less time casting about for the right fit — a win for workers and employers alike. Ideally, then, interested students could go on to pursue experience in the form of apprenticeships.
Ed Dernulc, executive director of the Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs Foundation, says manufacturing careers still suffer from a perception gap for kids and parents alike. The foundation aims to spark innovation and expose young adults to manufacturing careers through camps like the ones FVTC offers as well as providing scholarships. It’s working hard to change the image of manufacturing.
“Apple, at the end of the day, is a manufacturer, yet everybody thinks they’re high-tech,” he says. “The elegance of the phone is in that somebody is able to take that design and put all the software in and put it in a package that you can hold in your hand. That takes great skill and great thinking. We need to celebrate things like that more that invite people into manufacturing.”
FVTC’s popular program offers summer camps that acquaint kids with careers from welding to law enforcement to culinary arts. Its manufacturing camps, which include the Power of Manufacturing, Girls in the Shop and Metal Form & Fusion, typically fill quickly, Cattelino says.
“Summer camps are about the cool factor, what’s cool about each one of the topic areas, where our programs or courses are ultimately leading you to getting some experience and education with a job in mind,” he says.
The increase in the number of manufacturing camps reflects the evolution of the skills gap. When the college started the program, it included no manufacturing camps, and now it offers five sessions devoted to the industry. With the number of people retiring greater than the number entering the workforce, Cattelino says FVTC felt a sense of urgency to help meet the need.
Al Gomez, chief academic officer of Sun Prairie-based The STEM Academy, says the program offers kids an affordable camp experience — and one that teaches them something. Through its Corporate Connections program, The STEM Academy, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing STEM literacy, builds projects for companies that represent who they are and what they do and embed them in an educational environment.
Other nations outpace the United States when it comes to academics, Gomez says, but we lead when it comes to creativity and innovation. If other countries find ways to embrace those attributes, it could portend trouble.
“If we continue down that path, in a not-too-short period of time, when other places figure out the creativity and innovation, you’re going to have a crisis,” he says. “It’s only when we have a crisis in this country, that we actually do something.”
Part of the solution could include catching kids early. Grades five and eight represent critical milestones in a child’s development, Gomez says. In fifth grade, children decide what they do and do not like to do, and in eighth grade, they begin to decide what they want to do with what they like to do. Therefore, he says, FVTC’s camps catch tweens at an ideal moment.
Many area manufacturers support the program strongly, which sends an important message to kids and parents, Cattelino says.
One of those companies is Miller Electric, which has long maintained a partnership with FVTC, including donating to the Appleton campus’s 2016 welding lab expansion and getting involved in its summer camp program. The company contributed $10,000 to the Nuts, Bolts & Thingamajigs Foundation in support of manufacturing camps.
Todd Holverson, segment development manager at Miller, says the relationship is a natural, given the importance of having access to a skilled and talented workforce. It’s critical for kids to discover what they like — and don’t like — as they’re exploring careers, he says.
“Catching it early and figuring out the exposure and figuring out where your passion is — that’s huge, and these summer camps go a long way to connecting those,” he says.
Holverson says the FVTC welding lab provides kids and parents an example of a clean, safe, organized and modern manufacturing space. This mirrors the industry, which he says shares those attributes.
Andrew Rinke, associate dean of manufacturing technologies for FVTC, says while manufacturing and agriculture are the biggest industries in the state, kids don’t seem to have a clear picture of what those careers offer, a vexing problem for the college. The summer camp program helps build awareness and move the needle on industry perceptions, he says.
“It’s a big needle to move,” he says. “The college is certainly committed to continuing to try to move that needle because that’s what’s driven by our local industry.”