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As someone who has spent years in sales and marketing, I often think of problems in terms of a pipeline or funnel, similar to a sales or marketing funnel. In sales and marketing parlance, at the widest end of the funnel you have a large number of prospects or suspects, meaning you have a list of people whom you think might be interested in your product or service but you don’t really know for sure. These are typically called top-of-funnel leads. At the other end of the funnel is where you make a sale or close a deal. At the top of the funnel stage, you need to find a sufficient number of interested parties, qualify prospects, create initial awareness and then guide them through the value proposition for your product or service.

Let’s use this analogy to think about how to get more people entering middle skills careers. First, you need a large pool of potential prospects. There are several ones we could chose from including:

  • Veterans returning from overseas

  • Displaced workers from other industries (e.g., mid-career)

  • Newly arrived immigrants looking to enter the US workforce

  • High school students (or even younger)

Feeding the Funnel with High School Students

Let’s take a look at high school students - a promising source to feed the funnel. After 20+ years of increasing high school graduation rates, this pool has flattened out and is even in decline. That said, there are still more than 3M high school graduates each year.

High School Graduation Rate Trends and Projections

By a large margin, these students are being pushed into 4 year post-secondary programs and the concomitant $1.3T in student debt that comes along with it. Sadly, they are not being encouraged to pursue technical training at a 2 year community college despite the desperate need for more students to do so (for more on the looming skills gap in the US see our recent blog on this topic). In fact, after a spike in enrollment after the 2008 recession, community college attendance is now in steady decline. It's CRAZY what we are doing to young people today - pushing them into a lifetime of debt yet they can't find jobs when the graduate from 4 yr institutions (the unemployment rate of 20-24 yr olds is ~9% - almost 2x the national average per BLS).

2yr and 4yr College Enrollment Trends

So how do we change this - creating more top of funnel demand among high school students, and thereby setting this generation up for a lifetime of success and great, durable middle class jobs in areas like manufacturing, automotive, construction and the trades without a lifetime of suffocating student debt?

Students Haven't Got a Clue

In marketing, the best situation is when a prospect has already heard about your offering AND has a positive association with it in their minds. The worst situation is when they have heard of you and have a false negative perception - way too hard to overcome. It's better they never heard of you at all and you can start from scratch. In looking at US high schools, it’s clear that “on average” there is little to no career-technical education (CTE) or training left nationwide. Shop class has gone the way of drive-in movies, and 45 rpm records in the high school landscape. If there’s a silver lining in this it's that most students in the US have no idea about careers like manufacturing or welding - meaning they don’t have negative perceptions….they simply have no clue that, you know, stuff is actually made by people. They think cell phones come from Best Buy…not from a factory somewhere. If there are negative perceptions of CTE careers or the skilled trades they tend to be held by adults not students (i.e., parents, grandparents, high school instructors). This is actually a good thing from a marketer's point of view.

Success Stories from Coast to Coast

In my travels and conversations with educators, employers and workforce development groups across the country, I'm happy to report that there is cause for optimism. As the author Thomas Friedman says when talking about his new book Thank You for Being Late, the US looks a lot better upside-down; meaning - if you look at our country through the lens of specific communities where people are making a difference it looks a lot better and will make you more optimistic than if you look at it on the national scale or through the lens of DC. Let's look at reasons why you should be optimistic that the funnel can - and in specific communities IS - being filled with the next generation of skilled workers.

EdgeFactor - Making STEM and Manufacturing Cool through Video Storytelling

So how do you both inform and inspire this generation of students to consider a career path in something like advanced manufacturing? Taking a cue from consumer marketers, you would:

  • Create engaging content that speaks to their emotions, hopes and aspirations

  • Put it in a format that they respond to like YouTube

  • Use social-media enabled contests to spurn interest

Try the usual ways in which manufacturing is marketed - it's a key part of our economy and GDP, amazing use of automation and technology, great paying high skills jobs, blah blah blah - with teenagers and you'll have them checking out and and hitting their smartphones within 30 seconds.

What if you told them how US advanced manufacturing helped save lives in the 2010 Chilean Mine Disaster. What if you introduced them to a former X Games athlete who lost a leg in a snowmobile accident, then learned CAD and CNC machining to design a state of the art prosthesis that let him compete again?

EdgeFactor - which was started by Jeremy Bout who spent years as a machinist but also has a passion for storytelling - blew me away when I saw these stories. They conduct workshops, tell these stories cinematically and provide teacher support materials to thousands of schools in the US and Canada. As Larissa Hoffman, Dir. Communications for EdgeFactor told me, “we aren’t trying to change perception with students, as the bigger challenge is simply basic awareness”. By combining cinematic storytelling with interactive content and engaging workshops and competitions for middle schoolers and high schoolers, EdgeFactor is opening the eyes of students in 48 states and a large chunk of Canada to STEM, CTE and Manufacturing.

STEM and the Spark Truck

Another way in which students are being exposed to advanced manufacturing can be found - surprisingly - in the Cambrian explosion of STEM initiatives that are cropping up nationwide - in particular 3D printers. These devices have gotten cheap enough that many middle schools and high schools have now purchased one as part of their STEM initiatives. While lower end models might be thought of simply as toys, creating simple trinkets out of cheap plastic, they represent a great way to introduce students to the topic of additive manufacturing (vs. reductive methods like machining). And it may be working as more and more universities are creating maker spaces as students come to expect this level of capability. Georgia Tech, my alma mater, has a state of the art machine shop as well as a very popular student-run Invention Studio.

If your school can’t afford a 3D Printer, what if one could come to you? That was the vision Jason Chua and 2 friends had while grad. students at Stanford's famous Design School. Through a kickstarter campaign, and generous donations from various businesses, they created the Spark Truck - a panel van outfitted with 3D printers, laser cutters and the like. In the summer of 2012 they visited 33 states conducting workshops mostly targeting elementary and middle schoolers. The idea was to create a “spark” in kids’ imaginations through craft-style projects. Chua told me they would literally set up folding tables in the parking lot of schools, public libraries and museums and hold workshops for the kids. True to the Design School's methodology they did not make it a cookie-cutter step by step tutorial approach. Chua said they let the kids use their imaginations to decide the next step in the creative process. They also created follow up teacher support materials so instructors could continue the projects and the learning.

SkillsUSA - Grandaddy of them all

Imagine a national organization for high school students interested in CTE similar to Junior Achievement or the Boy Scouts. That's what SkillsUSA has been doing since 1965 with over 300,000 students divided across 18,000 plus local chapters in all 50 states and most territories with tailored programs based on age (middle school, high school and college). Members learn personal skills, workplace skills and technical skills in an academically grounded approach. The range of skills on which they focus now exceeds over 100 - from health sciences to aviation maintenance to fire fighting. The organization's centerpiece is its annual National Leadership Conference and Skills Competition held in Louisville, KY. Imagine a space the size of 16 football fields filled with students competing in areas as diverse as CPR to diagnosing a diesel engine to CAD designing and manufacturing of machine parts. If CTE had an Olympics or X-Games this would be it. Past keynote speakers have included Ronald Reagan, Chuck Yeager and Terry Bradshaw.

Vocational High Schools: Reports of their death are exaggerated

While things like EdgeFactor and Spark Truck are powerful, they also tend to be episodic. Why can’t we actually go back to teaching CTE skills in high school to not only create awareness but to actually begin the process of training students for successful careers? We used to do this in large numbers in the US, but that was 50-75 years ago. I thought these dedicated vocational schools were all but extinct but the reports of their extinction are slightly premature. This animal has been spotted in the wild, specifically in the northeast US - CT, MA, NY, NJ.

Henry Abbott Technical High School - Danbury, CT

My search for this mythical beast lead me to familiar grounds - Danbury CT my mother’s hometown and where I still have family. My uncle, who still lives in Danbury, enjoyed a successful career in real estate and construction in Danbury after returning from military duty in the late 1950s. I knew he at one point had built his own house, himself. What I didn’t know was that he learned carpentry in high school. Yes, that’s right - high school. He’s the proud graduate of Henry Abbott Technical High School in Danbury (where he’s also in the Sports Hall of Fame!). Founded in 1915, Abbott has a long and proud history. It’s one of the 17 schools that comprise the Connecticut CTE High School System educating more than 12,000 students in vocational career offerings like construction, automotive, cosmetology, HVAC, etc. It’s a true high school in that students graduate with the same high school diploma and academic achievement as any of CT’s other nearly 1200 high schools. However, you get the added benefit of learning a vocation.

They must be doing something right in that they typically admit less than 1/2 of the 500+ applications for 9th grade enrollment they receive annually, Jaymee Beckham, Assistant Principal at Abbott told me recently. They have to turn away students there's so much demand. Upperclassmen have the option of working 20 hours/week for a local employer as part of the curriculum training. While students are academically prepared to go to a 4 year college, almost all of them go straight into a full time job situation. So here's a place where the trades are alive and well and students exit high school with (1) a degree; (2) practical work experience; and (3) an awaiting job. #Win-Win-Win. They are fully armed with the tools to succeed in post-secondary education but the local job market in Danbury is scooping them up.

Mercy CTE High School - Philadelphia, PA

When you think of a private, catholic high school the first image that comes to your mind is probably not a woodworking shop or a cosmetology studio. But Mercy CTE High School is just that and in a category all by itself: a private, catholic vocational high school. Founded in 1950 by the Sisters of Mercy, the school is similar to Abbott Tech. It offers a full range of CTE programs, provides both a complete high school degree as well as work experience by the time students graduate, and sees the majority of upperclassmen engaged in a work-study program. According to Catherine Glatts, VP of CTE Education at Mercy, 1/3 of the graduates go straight into a job, 1/3 go directly to college (either 2 year or 4 year) and 1/3 combine work with part time post-secondary classes. The school is known for its strong work ethic among graduates in addition to their technical skills; they enjoy a 97% attendance rate and a 99% graduation rate. Ms. Glatts is as rare as the school is: a high school administrator who tells students "go to college when you think you are ready - not because it's what society tells you you should do."

One advantage Mercy, Abbott and other CTE high schools often enjoy is that many students chose to go there, going through a rigorous and competitive entrance selection process demonstrating that they are serious about learning a marketable vocation upon graduating. Like Abbott Tech, Mercy grads enjoy a serious advantage over their peers in Philadelphia - a degree and a job upon graduation.

But Wait...There's More

Don't think that the above examples are all that's out there. Most blogging manuals tell you to try and keep your posts under 2,000 words. So in the interest of brevity, here are a few other examples where the top of the skilled labor funnel is being courageously filled.

Minuteman is internationally recognized as a top CTE high school, offering 15 different program areas. MA has an active and prospering network of state vocational high schools. Like Abbott and Mercy, there's a significant waiting list of over 3500 students statewide according to the Boston Globe.

Approximately 1/3 of all 8th grade students will apply to one of the 4 vocational high schools in New Castle County, DE.

Instead of dedicated high schools, Nashville has innovatively embedded CTE programs within existing high schools with fantastic results. Attendance rates have gone up dramatically and students are more engaged in learning a marketable skill and enjoy co-op work/study programs.

No list would be complete without mention of NY's Boards of Cooperative Education Services. Partnering with school districts statewide its mission is broader than just CTE education. However, they engage more than 35,000 students in CTE programs and partner with more than 3000 local businesses as advisors to achieve incredible scale in the Empire State.

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