The Image Issue

A student at Roosevelt High School in Seattle works with CFRP during a composites workshop hosted by the SME Education Foundation as part of its Partnership Response in Manufacturing Education (PRIME®) initiative. Photo Credit: SME Education Foundation

As Cramer tours the country to help manufacturers and schools develop PRIME programs, he’s learned that not only are manufacturers having trouble getting quality talent; they’re having trouble getting talent, period. During ACMA’s Composites Executive Forum in 2017, Cramer said that even if 100 percent of the graduating high schoolers in the Pittsburgh metro area got jobs in manufacturing, employers in the area would still be short 20,000 employees.

A big part of the issue stems from a familiar foe – the negative perception of manufacturing among students and their parents. Harmon Heath believes many parents’ fears come from personal experiences in the 1970s and 1980s, when many American manufacturing jobs were offshored and either they or their parents were left unemployed. In addition to job security, many high school and college-aged students still view manufacturing jobs as inherently dirty. But ironically, according to Harmon Heath, the positions manufacturers are having the hardest time filling aren’t dirty at all.

“It isn’t like that anymore,” says Harmon Heath. “That’s not to say that there aren’t some jobs that are hot or you might get dirty doing them, but many of the manufacturing jobs today are in a very clean environment. These jobs require a high level of skill.” Those skills, she says, can only be obtained through education in a community college technical program or on-the-job-training.

To help reshape the conversation around composites manufacturing, IACMI participates in the National Association of Manufacturers’ (NAM) annual Manufacturing Day, during which manufacturers from all over the country open their facilities to the public to give hundreds of thousands of students and their parents an idea of what a career in manufacturing actually looks like. During Manufacturing Day 2017 in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, IACMI and LIFT – Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow inaugurated the IACMI Scale-Up Research Facility (SURF), which is used for innovative automotive research and development projects. Harmon Heath says exposing middle and high schoolers to the facility helped create awareness of what it means to work on a 21st century shop floor. She believes parents get to see that automotive manufacturing can be a real career and not just a temporary job for early career professionals waiting for a “real” opportunity. And for students, activities at SURF show how cool manufacturing can be.

“We increase [students’] awareness on what these types of jobs are, but we do it in a way that’s engaging and fun,” says Harmon Heath. “They get to see technology being used in fun and cool ways, and they don’t realize that what they’re doing is really science and learning. It just feels like it’s a lot of fun.” One example of an activity that always captivates students, she says, is playing the game Connect Four with industrial robots.

Cramer believes that another great way to get young people interested in manufacturing careers is to create programs that appeal to their inner sense of purpose. He believes that Generation Z is driven by how it can impact others, as opposed to some of its millennial predecessors who are driven more by self-importance. That doesn’t mean, he adds, that one generation is “better” than another, but that engagement strategies need to change as manufacturers look toward the future.

“I think this generation of students, more so than any, always looks to ‘How is this bigger than me? How do I make an impact?’” he says, noting that by showing a young person a simple composite manufacturing process, a company can put its own work into perspective and help inspire future professionals.

Cramer says that type of engagement must start early, though. For example, SME PRIME outreach also includes elementary and middle school students, their parents and community members to build excitement and awareness of manufacturing, similarly to how kids get excited about first responders during a school’s career day. That early exposure, he says, can ease recruitment once the kids get older.