BLAKE KIRBY HAD AN inkling he was interested in a career in manufacturing. An experience through the Boy Scouts of America Bay-Lakes Council cemented it.
As a student at Freedom High School, Kirby, now pursuing a degree in manufacturing engineering at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, participated in a Career Exploring post through the Boy Scouts at Pierce Manufacturing. During the nine-week course, students got an indepth look at the company.
The Pierce post took kids through the process of making a fire truck from beginning to end, down to the design, sales, marketing and customer service for it. Kirby, 19, who recently spoke at the BSA Bay- Lakes Council Golden Eagle Dinner, says the experience helped him confirm his interest in becoming a manufacturing engineer.
“Having done it has definitely opened many doors for everything,” Kirby says.
Throughout its decades-long history, BSA’s Exploring program has given teens and young adults the opportunity to learn about careers in a hands-on, immersive way. Now the organization that prides itself on its motto of “be prepared” is taking that commitment to another level.
Taking in the jobs landscape of Northeast Wisconsin and with the encouragement of industry leaders such as Neenah Enterprises President and CEO Tom Riordan, the Bay-Lakes Council has added a manufacturing emphasis to the program.
Riordan, a Scouting alumnus, has been working with the National Association of Manufacturers for years to improve the visibility and attractiveness of the manufacturing industry. Through the Boy Scouts, he saw an opportunity to reach more kids.
“It’s a natural opportunity for taking the soft skills Scouts offers and combining them with hard skills,” Riordan says.
The Exploring program isn’t just for boys or Scouts, says Alexandria Behrend, director of development for BSA Bay-Lakes Council. It’s for male and female students ages 14 to 20. Many businesses want to implement a youth outreach program, Behrend says, but don’t know where to start or how to “speak the kids’ language.”
“I think the Career Exploring is a nice way for us to approach manufacturers in a non-Scouting way,” Behrend says. “Maybe they don’t see a tie with traditional Scouting, but if we’re able to bring them a possible solution to workforce shortages or at least … help them fill that gap, I think it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Through a capital campaign, the organization aims to raise $125,000 each of the next three years to underwrite the cost of adding a staff member dedicated to facilitating and marketing the manufacturing Exploring initiative. The council hopes to attract 10 sponsors, and Neenah Enterprises, Miron Construction and Boldt Co. have already signed on.
Kristin Ely-Bluemke, development director for BSA Bay-Lakes Council, says the program goes beyond helping young adults acquire technical skills.
Soft skills such as accountability, teamwork, eye contact and a firm handshake prove just as important when it comes to landing a job, she says.
“These are critical skills when you get into a work environment that employers are really looking for,” she says.
For Riordan, getting more young people exposed to manufacturing is personal. At Neenah Enterprises, around one-third of his operations staff is projected to retire within the next few years. His company needs skilled workers in the areas of PLC programming,electrical technology and robotics.
In 2018, Neenah Enterprises plans to offer its first Exploring post. Riordan says the experience will give participants a look at manufacturing as well as business processes. They’ll see a high-tech environment that includes robotics, state-of-the-art equipment and all kinds of engineering.
Michael Molnar, an Eagle Scout, Appleton native and founding director of the Office of Advanced Manufacturing at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, spoke at the BSA Bay-Lakes Council Golden Eagle Dinner and received an award.
He echoed Riordan’s sentiments, saying society is entering the “golden age of manufacturing.”
“We are at the cusp of something very exciting,” he says. “It’s the fourth manufacturing revolution, what many people are calling Manufacturing 4.0. It will change the rules of manufacturing.”
Riordan says the new manufacturing emphasis in the Exploring program is designed to show young people just that. Through it, he says he hopes to influence them to pursue a career in manufacturing and to stay in the region — maybe even for a job at Neenah Enterprises.
He sees this as a unique opportunity for corporations to get involved with the work of a nonprofit organization.
“This is one that potentially could pay companies back in time,” he says.