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3 EASY WAYS TO CLOSE THE SKILLS GAP IN MANUFACTURING - Part 3 - Internships and Pre-Career Engagemen

Part 3 - Internships and Pre-Career Engagement

The first two posts in this series have looked at creative methods employers are using to close the skills gap:

  • Modern Apprenticeships (Part 1)

  • On The Job Training and Workforce Development (Part 2)

These areas are vital to providing the actual skills required to succeed in today's workforce. However, these programs are necessary but not sufficient in closing the skills gap unless we can get enough young people interested in pursuing these career paths in the first place. In our final installment, we will revisit a topic we discussed in a prior blog - the "top of the funnel" - by looking at what employers are doing themselves to create a future 'farm team' of talent and to get young people engaged and interested in these incredibly important and valuable career paths.

Why Internships?

Why devote an entire post to Internships? In our view, they are becoming more and more important in the lives and career choices of young people although not for the reasons you might expect.

Unfortunately, when we interview high school students, their parents and their teachers we often find that young people have little idea what particular careers are all about, what working adults do all day, and what local industries produce, let alone what they themselves might want to pursue. While this might not be all that different from years past, it is made more acute by the fact that fewer young people today have part time or summer jobs in high school where they would be exposed to the workplace and acquire important skills and learnings that would enlighten future career decisions and lay a strong foundation for workplace success.

As schools attempt to push almost every student toward a 4 year college path, their motivations and the metrics on which they are typically judged are to a) graduate students from high school with acceptable grades and b) ensure they matriculate into 4 yr post-secondary institutions. Sadly, there is little time for compelling career exploration in many high schools. There is even less time for students to get part time jobs after school or in the summers - a great way to learn about what it means to be a productive employee. Finally, in many communities one can certainly find increased interest in high school internships but it's driven primarily by the competitive college admissions process: college admissions officers like to see internships listed so students seek them out but not necessarily for career exploration purposes.

As we found with on the job training, employers are now stepping up their own efforts to fill the top of their skilled workforce funnel by taking the initiative to put compelling, engaging, hands-on internship programs in place themselves. Here are two examples of the many successes we've found nationwide.

SW Washington STEM Network (Vancouver, WA)

Vancouver, WA sits on the northern banks of the Columbia River, across from Portland, OR. While Portland may be best known for hipster cafes, microbreweries and rose gardens its nearby grittier neighbor has been a manufacturing and natural resources center dating back to the Hudson Bay Company. In the last 50 years, Vancouver's shipbuilding, aluminum production and wood products have given way to a new generation of manufacturing - microelectronics. The Portland-Vancouver area is now known as "Silicon Forest" with anchor tenants like Intel, Tektronix, and HP. Access to clean water, plentiful hydroelectric power and a skilled manufacturing workforce helped the area transform itself in recent years. As with most manufacturing hubs, Silicon Forest has also spawned many - ahem - saplings in that there are scores of Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers of components, equipment, materials and services that have grown up with the local microelectronics industry.

As we have seen in so many other places, Vancouver's local manufacturers have struggled to find enough skilled labor to keep up with the ever-growing demand for microelectronics. In 2010, a local manufacturing trade association hit the tipping point and had had enough. They decided to partner with the Evergreen School District to do something about it. SEH America, a forward thinking silicon wafer manufacturer, was the initial catalyst for this program.

The original approach was to take a handful of students (either 11th or 12th graders) and immerse them in a blended learning environment for a semester, where they spend up to 90 hours of the term on site at SEH and the balance of the semester in a team-centric class environment. They don't get paid but they get academic credit. Students learn the fundamentals of manufacturing (including key concepts like Lean/Agile production, 6 Sigma, etc.) but more importantly get to apply them to real world problems and case studies developed by SEH. They get the linked-learning benefit of seeing how math, chemistry, physics and language arts are used (and important!) in the 'real world'. And they work very closely with mentors and internship leaders within SEH in an incredibly hands on and informative way.

Originally part of a single school district, the effort was subsequently spun out into a separate organization - the SW Washington STEM Network. Ted Feller, who designed the program while at Evergreen and now leads the Network's efforts, shared with us that more than 50% of the STEM-centric jobs in Silicon Forest DO NOT require a 4 year college degree, but do require something beyond high school. The selective internship program (kids have to apply and be interviewed and accepted by the employer) is a great option for these kids. Like so many other employers have told us they select interns based on attitude not aptitude (you don't have to have a 4.0 GPA to get accepted into the program). Ted also shared his vision for expanding the program: they are now deploying a 'virtual internship' for companies that aren't ready to host students for 90 hours/semester on site. Also, the program framework is being expanded outside of microelectronics to food and beverage, aerospace and other local manufacturing sectors. The principles interns learn on topics like 6 Sigma and Lean are extensible to almost any manufacturing environment.

FAME - Finger Lakes Advanced Manufacturing Enterprise (Rochester, NY)

Rochester NY was once home to advanced technology icons Kodak and Xerox. So iconic were they in Rochester that at one point Kodak employed nearly 70,000 people in the Rochester area. Similar to Vancouver, WA those businesses have subsided but have given way to a new generation of technically-oriented firms producing optical products and devices of all sorts - e.g., lasers used for medical procedures, sophisticated glass lenses for satellite imaging, optical diagnostic systems for measuring surface defects on silicon wafers. Today, Rochester is home to more than 120 optical products/services businesses.

FAME is a unique industry consortium heavily populated by these companies, but not exclusively so. It's a public-private partnership in conjunction with local/regional workforce investment boards and these employers. Their goal is to work together across the many stakeholders (including high schools, community colleges, economic development agencies, job seekers) to enable a bright, motivated, informed, skilled workforce that contributes to regional manufacturing sector growth.

Of the many unique FAME initiatives, one in particular stands out - its "5% Pledge". Given the skills gap coupled with the growing optics industry in the region, they are trying to get more young people involved in internships as an on-ramp to production-style positions in manufacturing. They ask member companies to commit to having 5% of their yearly workforce be temporary, internship-style employees. So if you have a shop with 100 employees, you would commit to having at least 5 interns each year, most likely in the summer.

Mike Mandina, the CEO of member company Optimax Systems which produces high precision optics for the aerospace, defense and consumer markets and a FAME executive leader, is a key champion of this program. In the Rochester area, as we have found almost everywhere else, too many kids are automatically being pushed toward a 4 yr college path according to Mandina, and not enough effort is being made to expose them to alternative career and academic paths, even though there is an excellent community college system (Monroe Community College) that even has a one-of-a-kind degree program in Optical Systems and Technologies. As a result, companies like Optimax struggle to find skilled technical talent. Mandina told us that his team keeps a running list of projects they might need help with during the year producing ample opportunities for the (summer) interns to not only learn about Optimax and advanced optical manufacturing but also make value contributions to the company's efforts. Going well beyond the 5% benchmark, it's not uncommon to find up to 20 paid summer interns working at Optimax.

Using All the Tools in the Toolbox

While we have covered various strategies to close the skills gap separately in this blog series, not surprisingly forward-looking companies who are thriving in today's economy leverage all these strategies to close the gaps - internships, modern apprenticeships, incumbent workforce development and more. For example, Optimax has compelling internal training programs for existing employees, including tuition reimbursement. Batesville Tool and Die also has an incredible high school engagement program, more like a co-op program, where they host 11th and 12th graders in a work-study program that also can earn them credits at Ivy Tech Community College.

Just like the best golfers can hit every club in their bag, or the best craftsman know how to use every tool in the toolbox, companies that are going to thrive in the current environment - which will only become more challenging as the baby boomers retire - know that they can't just do 1 thing to close the skills gap. They need to continue to think creatively and not be afraid to try new programs. If they don't, they risk joining the lists of American companies that could not continue to innovate to meet the ever-changing challenges they faced.

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