Wisconsin organization brings students and manufacturers together to promote industrial careers
By Christopher James Palafox
It's draft day at Lambeau Field. The teams in the stadium continue to evaluate the talent of the more than 200 students as the potential draftees fight for recognition, hoping to become one of this year's top draft picks.
Except these students are not athletes aiming to join an NFL team-they're competing to join a local manufacturing team.
“We have a big event called 'Internship Draft Day,'” says Ann Franz, coordinator at the Northeast Wisconsin (NEW) Manufacturing Alliance, a group of manufacturers that work on promoting the industry. “It's a big college internship fair with a twist. We want to continually expose students to these careers.” NEW works with educators, workforce development, chambers of commerce and state organizations to promote manufacturing, specifically in Northeast Wisconsin, by thinking of creative ways to engage future talent while they're still in school.
This challenge is especially important in Northeast Wisconsin as approximately 23% of jobs in the region are in manufacturing, compared to a Wisconsin state average of 16% and a U.S. average of 9% manufacturing employment. Founded on June 6, 2006, the alliance was created when 12 local companies came together to solve the talent problem. According to NEW, more than 20% of the manufacturing workforce is at retirement age, which highlights the need for these types of organizations. “It's hard for us to find talent as baby boomers start retiring,” Franz says. “It's even more critical that we work together in one unified voice to talk about the great careers and opportunities in manufacturing.”
According to Deloitte Consulting and the Manufacturing Institute's 2015-2025 outlook on the skills gap in U.S. manufacturing, within 10 years, manufacturing will be short 2 million qualified workers. Programs like Internship Draft Day gesture toward a future when manufacturing could be a career that kids dream of having.
The Internship Draft Day, now running up to its third go-around, usually occurs during the second week of November in order to accommodate the Green Bay Packers' schedule. To make the process of finding a manufacturing internship not only more enticing for students but also to break down the barriers to entry, NEW brings in more than 200 students from both four-year and technical colleges. Students are bussed in from throughout Wisconsin, receive jerseys upon arrival and then decide with which companies they would like to interview for paid college internships. Students accumulate points from a variety of criteria, including how well they interview and their GPAs. The event culminates with Green Bay Packers president, Mark Murphy, announcing the No. 1 draft picks from each college. Franz says the ultimate appeal of the program is that instead of a company having to go to each individual college, everyone can meet on draft day.
The NEW Manufacturing Alliance's work extends beyond college with a K-12 task force that seeks to create employability skills training by working with school systems. An example of this partnership is a recent project with DenmarkHigh School and one of its tech-ed metals and engineering classes.
“There's a series of three different training programs with some added safety training,” says Andy Bushmaker, associate engineering, production manager at furniture manufacturer and NEW alliance member KI. Bushmaker has nearly 20 years of manufacturing experience and has been with the manufacturing alliance for the past five years. “KI had a low-priority problem that consisted of coming up with a different method for installing casters to a chair. We challenged the class at Denmark to come up with a better way to do it.”
The high-school students in the program then designed and built a machine to do the job, with Bushmaker and another KI engineer conducting training with the students. Students were walked through exactly how KI would solve the caster problem in-house: creating a continuous improvement plan, establishing and following a timeline and working as a team and communicating. The high schoolers ended up designing a piece of equipment that is now out on the KI manufacturing floor.
This year, Bushmaker says students are working on a more complex project that involves installing bushings on a chair, as well as again creating casters on a different type of chair. Participants were asked to create a proof of concept, which includes drawings and costing to justify the project. This sort of hands-on experience is what Bushmaker and NEW hope to offer up to young minds.
“Students have so much more buy-in because they know that they're going to put something out on our floor here,” Bushmaker says. “The students last year were so into it that, even though they didn't quite get it done by the end of the school year, they kept coming back after school was over until it was done.”
As this partnership between Denmark and KI was a pilot program, NEW is now looking to get more companies and schools involved.
While the program at Denmark is aimed at giving hands-on experience to students who already have basic interest in manufacturing, the NEW Manufacturing Alliance's Get Real Math initiative is meant to appeal to any student by teaching about real-world applications for math, such as installing a robotic arm for welding.
The program was proposed by a math teacher on NEW's K-12 task force that was tired of students asking, “When am I going to use this in the real world?”
“The Get Real Math videos have become a way of showcasing careers in manufacturing without a student having to take an intro course, as well as a tool for showing the practical applications of math,” Franz says. Get Real Math consists of a series of online videos with corresponding lesson plans that teach math skills, as well as their real-life applications.
“Most of these skills are in fifth through eighth grade, and eventually we want every math class to have these videos so that students are more likely to enroll in tech and manufacturing-related classes because they have exposure to it,” Franz says.
Lesson plans were commissioned by NEW and created by a math teacher so that each video and the work that goes along with it meets the common-core skills it needs to. So far, the program has been a success, leading NEW to create a math council of teachers throughout the region that gives input on future videos.
To further shift the image of the manufacturing industry into something more dynamic, NEW created its All Stars program. All Stars issues an annual career magazine that puts a face to the many kinds of jobs one can have in manufacturing by sharing the stories of individual manufacturers.
“There are so many talented people that are passionate about their careers,” Franz says. “What better promotion than to have them share their stories?” To figure out who NEW should cover, companies in the industry nominate employees between 18 and 36 years old, which is then narrowed down by a judging panel.
Already in its 10th year of publication, All Stars is printed each year, and 20,000 copies go to students, teachers, guidance counselors, parents, job centers and job seekers. An online edition includes videos of individuals talking about their careers.
According to NEW, by sharing these stories, it has started to change the impression of manufacturing in the region, while also providing a resource for more than 100 careers in manufacturing.
NEW has also hosted Wisconsin's largest manufacturing conference, Manufacturing First, six times. This year's show had more than 1,800 attendees, and 600 of those were high-school students. The two-day event has conference sessions on topics such as talent, safety and lean manufacturing. Much like the Intern Draft Day program, students are bussed in from throughout the region to introduce them to people in different manufacturing fields. College students are invited to come and meet with employers, as well.
This event is also a time for NEW to celebrate the expansion of the industry's reach outside of itself through its awards dinner called the Excellence in Manufacturing/K-12 Partnerships Awards. Schools and manufactures are both honored at the event, with schools eligible to win cash prizes. This year's dinner hosted live and silent auctions that raised more than $30,000, which goes to NEW's scholarship fund. Since the alliance started, it has supported more than $150,000 in college scholarships.
Beyond this event, the NEW Manufacturing Alliance has seen much growth in manufacturing since it was formed in 2006. In 2005 before the alliance started, at the four local technical colleges, there were 180 students enrolled in machining-related degrees. In 2015, there were 512 people enrolled. Similarly, in 2005 there were 193 students enrolled in welding, with a jump up to 835 enrolled in 2016.
“We've seen 300% increases in people going into these fields,” Franz says. “It's not just us thinking our projects are cool. We truly have found that, by working in partnership with our schools and colleges, we've made a significant impact on how many people are pursuing these degree fields.”
Still NEW believes that industry must continue to lead this type of growth. “Manufacturing has to bring their voices together because they're the most passionate about the industry,” says Franz. He and Bushmaker recommend looking to see if you, as a manufacturer, can find any organizations trying to promote the industry and to ask, “Who is working to promote manufacturing in your company? Your network?”
“Machine builders should become engaged with their local high schools and technical colleges,” Bushmaker says. “Together, there's a lot still to be done.”