Figuring out how to build a better workforce has been the game plan in the New North region for some time now. Trouble is, the rules haven’t always been clear, and not everyone is a player just yet.
The persisting impression is that manufacturing means going to work in a dark and dingy dungeon where you’re stuck doing the same repetitive work until you die. It’s pure balderdash.
Regional leaders have rolled the dice on a number of successful efforts to counter these images and connect all of the players in a measurably positive way.
The NEW Manufacturing Alliance was formed in 2006 out of the very real concern that the workforce was aging and there weren’t enough new faces to replace retirees. The Northeast Wisconsin Educational Resource Alliance (NEW ERA) brought together 13 New North area colleges to collaborate on high-demand programs. Chambers of commerce are working with K-12 educators to connect kids with technical colleges and companies. These efforts are all working, evidenced by enrollment growth in high-demand programs at regional technical colleges and interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) classes at the K-12 level.
But it’s still a struggle to get young people interested in manufacturing-related classes and careers. All of the players are responsible for helping advance the game to the next level, and any of them can still get mired in the misconceptions that keep everybody from moving forward.
So, what are the ways to overcome these obstacles and help everybody win the game?
Manufacturers: Connect with teachers
“I don’t believe that educators have all of the knowledge about the career opportunities that exist in manufacturing,” says Colleen Vollbrecht, corporate organizational development manager at Rockline Industries in Sheboygan Falls. “So they tend to steer students away from manufacturing towards primarily four-year-type-degree careers. I think parents are a second barrier that exists – we all want our kids to do something better and different than we did, so we tend to gear them towards a four-year professional career.”
Manufacturers, in turn, can do a better job of communicating with educators, Vollbrecht says, and when they do build that relationship, perspectives can change. Plant tours during a teacher in-service day, for example, helped educators see how much automation and computer technology was a part of the Rockline facility.
“They were just amazed at the amount of skill sets that are required to work in manufacturing,” Vollbrecht says. “I think until they see it, you just think back to the old-time manufacturing where it’s just dingy and there’s not a lot of need for your skills or brain power while you’re at work. But that’s fully changed.”
Vollbrecht is a co-founder of Inspire Sheboygan County, a year-old startup that connects educators, students and parents with businesses, offering experiences such as plant tours, job shadowing or internships. The organization’s website features software that helps show kids what kinds of jobs might meet their interests.
The Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce’s Your Future Fox Cities program, also launched last year under the name Connect a Career, operates in a similar way, aiming to open up career possibilities to students.
Through Inspire Sheboygan County, companies can upload a profile and embed videos on the site, and kids can talk directly to people at these companies.
“The idea is to try to connect kids with proper information or accurate information and encourage the kids to investigate their own best task, whatever that is,” says Peter Geise, executive director of Inspire Sheboygan County.
This year, the organization is focusing on getting parents more active and engaged in their kids’ future career plans by engaging them in the website and encouraging them to become mentors through their companies.
Parents: Be open-minded
But even parents working in manufacturing don’t always support a child’s ideas about entering the same career field, Vollbrecht says.
“There’s still that mentality of having the old assembly lines and not having the ability to have an influence on decisions in your job,” Vollbrecht says. “Where in most manufacturing environments today, you’re problem-solvers, you’re trouble-shooters, you’re helping to redesign systems and processes on a regular basis to make them even more efficient.”
Vollbrecht has a 32-year-old son and 30-year-old daughter who both entered manufacturing careers.
“I had the great fortune of working for a company (Bemis Manufacturing in Sheboygan Falls) that allowed me to explore different jobs while I worked, and I think I was just able to come home and talk about all of the different experiences,” Vollbrecht says. “My kids both had opportunities to work for that company in the summer. So they got to experience working in a plant and understanding some of the trials and tribulations that people go through, and it gives them a whole different perspective in their roles now because of that.”
Lori Scruton, who is a systems analyst at Plexus, says people don’t often realize that there are all kinds of manufacturing environments – some, like foundries or hydraulic assembly, fall into the “get your hands dirty” category, but not Plexus, which has to be spotless and temperature controlled. Nor do people realize the range of positions that are needed in those working environments.
“Manufacturing is a big word,” Scruton says. “It encompasses the whole process, all the way from order entry to getting paid and cash flow, and all the steps in between.”
Structured opportunities like Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day can help give young people a true window on manufacturing, when they include focused activities, she says.
“It originally started as kind of a cool thing, where I took my girls with me to work. They saw what they didn’t want to do and what they did like, and I would make sure they got out on tours,” Scruton says.
“Now, it’s become more of a play day for kids. It just doesn’t seem what it originally was intended to be.”
Scruton’s daughter Julia is starting her freshman year at Michigan Tech in Houghton, Mich., despite scheduling problems that kept her from the manufacturing and engineering academy at Neenah High School.
“Julia was involved in orchestra, and she wanted to take five years of Spanish – well, that takes away two slots out of her schedule, but that’s still important. Foreign language and the arts are important. It’s important to be well-rounded,” she says.
Educators: Tour companies
Steve Meyer, a technology and engineering instructor in the Brillion School District, led the charge to completely overhaul the high school’s tech-ed program about 11 years ago to do exactly that – provide students with a more well-rounded and valuable experience.
That’s not to say it was easy. Some parents were reluctant to lose the traditional shop-class style courses, but these classes were no longer useful to preparing kids for a modern-day manufacturing job, Meyer says. School leaders thought they needed a strong small engines course because of Brillion’s connection to Ariens (which doesn’t actually make small engines). Even manufacturers have outdated ideas about what kind of education kids need.
“There’s this misconception that if there is a need in industry for a highly skilled worker, that young people in school need to learn that skill,” Meyer says. “Our belief is that young people need a very well-rounded education. We can throw as many things at them as possible because they’re going to start seeing the connections, and everything in our world is so connected right now because of technology.”
When companies visit Brillion High School to see for themselves, they get it, Meyer says.
“There’s been a lot of eye-opening discoveries by the companies saying, ‘You know what, we were thinking about this the wrong way, we actually don’t need a young person to operate that machine, we need a young person that can come in and think and adapt and work in teams and solve problems,’” Meyer says.
Brillion focuses on design-based learning and offering lots of kinds of classes rather than concentrating on one area. “We want kids to know a little bit about a lot of things, and so we offer tons of different content areas, from interior design to web page development to STEM,” Meyer says.
Students: Take STEM classes
An interest in archery helped 18-year-old Julia Scruton make a connection that led her to pursue an education in material science.
She started out in the sport at age 4 with a little red bow that her dad bought her at Fleet Farm, and she used his old aluminum arrows. She graduated to a better bow and wooden arrows, then stronger arrows made of different materials like carbon fiber and aluminum-carbon-fiber composites. “It’s kind of crazy how fast it changed, and it kind of got me thinking about different materials,” Julia Scruton says.
Ultimately, Julia Scruton wants to go into research and development and make things that will have a positive impact in the world.
“Stuff needs to get lighter and stronger so it takes less energy to move,” she says. “As far as transportation goes, I don’t think we’re ever going to get ‘clean’ energy, but we can use it more effectively.
And that requires lighter stuff with smaller engines.”
Julia Scruton has been in classes where she’s the only girl and has heard comments like “boys have such engineering minds.” But other experiences like an engineering summer camp and Science Olympiad helped encourage and develop her interest, she says.
Perhaps most vital is that the interest began formulating early in her life.
That’s the way to eliminate hesitation about manufacturing-related courses from both students and their parents, Meyer says. Last year, the Brillion School District adopted a K-4-through-fifth-grade required STEM education and passed a public referendum to build an elementary-level STEM innovation center.
“If we start with kids at age 4, those misconceptions never become misconceptions,” he says. “I can tell you now that if I asked 98 percent of the kids in the elementary school what their favorite class was, they’d say ‘STEM.’
“Now think about that in the aspect of a parent of a kid in their junior year saying, ‘I think I might want to go into a manufacturing-related career,’” Meyer says. “Now the parent is going to say, ‘I think you absolutely should, it’s been your favorite class since you were 4.’”
Meyer says the mindset will help lead more girls to these classes as well. Right now, enrollment in his high school classes is about 30 percent female. Starting them in STEM classes at the kindergarten level would help their interest in tech-ed courses to naturally grow.
Then, when the guidance counselor asks them during their freshman year if they’re planning to take a STEM class, “the girl’s going to look at the guidance counselor confused, and say, ‘Of course I am, I always have, why wouldn’t I?’” Meyer says. “It really takes care of so many of those misconceptions. They’re not even going to know the difference because the misconceptions have never been there from the beginning.”
Rules of the Game
1. Start younger. Instilling an interest in STEM-related activities from a very young age will open more possibilities to more students earlier.
2. Get more girls involved. See Rule No. 1. Starting early and making STEM involvement “normal” for girls will help overcome the stereotype that it’s not for them.
3. Get parents involved. Let them see what kinds of opportunities are available for their kids.
4. Integrate education and experience. Schools should know that simply adding more STEM-type courses won’t help without making connections to real-world applications. “What we’ve found is by really showing kids the connections in each of those areas, their knowledge is increased because they understand the connections,” says Steve Meyer, a Brillion teacher. “And we’re finding that kids that maybe struggled in math before, if they’re able to apply it and understand why they’re doing it, they’re actually better at math.”
5. Think five or six years ahead. What will students need to be successful in a work environment once they’re out of high school, technical training or college?
6. Let go of how things used to be. What worked for you in school isn’t going to work for your kids.
7. Instill a love for learning. Technology is changing so fast and will continue to change. Today’s workers can expect to need more training or more education at some point in their careers. “I think it’s important for students to understand that regardless of where you go, you have to be open to continuously reinventing and reeducating yourself, because manufacturing is going to continue to change and grow,” says Colleen Vollbrecht of Rockline.
8. Manufacturing leaders must support efforts as an organization. Initiatives like Inspire Sheboygan County don’t work unless institutions are behind the individuals who want to participate, says Peter Geise of Inspire Sheboygan County.
9. Develop school schedule plans that allow students to take a variety of courses. Everything matters. Art classes can be connected to computer-aided design, for example, and English classes are vital toward developing the kinds of communication skills that are necessary for team-oriented work environments.