Help Educators Build the Next Generation of Manufacturing Talent


In recent years much has been written about the negative perceptions of working in manufacturing and the need to change those perceptions. Initiatives have been undertaken regarding the need for education from middle school through high school. These are intended to expose students at a young age to the possibilities of a manufacturing career, to present a more current understanding of what it’s like to work in manufacturing and to increase the number of students who might now consider going into manufacturing. It’s fair to say that few outside of manufacturing are informed about the manufacturing renaissance spreading across the country with engaged workforces that work collaboratively with their management and the companies’ continuous improvement strategies.

Secondary schools and technical colleges are playing a key role in the revival of manufacturing as a career, especially for blue-collar families. I am personally aware of three technical schools and a handful of high schools that have taken up the banner and aren’t just talking about manufacturing as a career, they’re doing something about it. They are providing the opportunity for students interested in manufacturing to learn basic skills in middle school and high school classes. In the case of the high schools, efforts have been underway over the last few years to align high school course work so that students earn high school credits that will transfer to an area tech school. This can amount to as much as a full semester of credits. It’s often referred to as “early college.”

(By the way, recently posted the article Indiana Adopts National Employer-Driven Education Program. It’s a statewide program where local manufacturers can identify the specific skills their entry-level employees must have to be employable. That enables new people to add value right away. The article indicates that Indiana is the ninth state to participate in this national initiative. This is the first time I’ve been aware of the national initiative. I hope the other 41 states will consider being a part of it as well. American manufacturing was once the envy of the world. Who’s to say that can’t happen again?)

A Personal Desire to Help

I had been contemplating the last couple of years how I could pay it forward to make a meaningful contribution in my home town.  My specific interest was to help the students, many of whom are living in poverty and not likely college bound. 

Larry Fast answers your questions in his column Ask the Expert: Lean Leadership. Submit your questions here.

Winchester, Indiana, is my home town, although I haven’t lived there in 50 years. It was a bustling, vibrant town of about 5,000 people in those days, with lots of good paying manufacturing jobs supporting the glass industry, a great assortment of stores and a movie theater on the square, and a new fieldhouse for the rabid high-school basketball fans.

Unfortunately, about three decades ago this small community fell on hard times and lost most of the factories that supported the glass industry. The town square ceased to be a beehive of activity. Based on this decline, many of the remaining jobs are minimum-wage-type jobs, certainly paying well under what one would earn from manufacturing jobs. It’s hard for students to find work there that will support a standard of living where they can raise a family and possibly own a home. According to recent Winchester census data, 51% of the population is over 50 years old, and more than 25% of the population leave the area in their 20s.

How to Turn the Tide

In my opinion, the collective mission of today’s leaders in Winchester and Randolph County schools is to continue improving their curriculum to provide more of the skills local manufacturers need in order to help reduce the exodus of citizens of prime working ages. Give them a reason to stay.

The city leaders’ mission, on the other hand, becomes one of selling the benefits for manufacturing companies to bring their operations to the area, expand the tax base and reinvigorate the community. Organizations such as the city and county economic development groups (working closely with state authorities), the chamber of commerce, the county commissioners can and should be more aggressive in selling the benefits of manufacturing in the local area.

Winchester and Randolph County have three major draws to help recruit:

  1. The school system is graduating an annual crop of students ready to do manufacturing work right off the campus. That’s a huge benefit. Further, with a regional Ivy Tech campus 25 miles away, additional education/training is readily available by working directly with the local educators, businesses and Ivy Tech, which has fully committed as a partner to expanding the skills training in Winchester. If interest is high enough, it has offered to conduct some classes onsite in Randolph County.
  2. This area is a low-cost place to do business.
  3. There’s no question local leaders have plenty to sell to potential job creators if you consider a revitalized town square, the number and diversity of churches, a first-class golf course with beautiful new homes. It has “hometown USA” potential.

As family members have passed or had jobs that drew them away, I have only visited Winchester once or twice a year over the last 20 years. Yet, as I’ve reached out, I’ve been overwhelmed at the interest, support, the openness and the actions of the school corporation team to making the high school a place where blue-collar-minded students can excel and learn the basic skills needed to go into manufacturing, welding and other careers. I’ve received a warm welcome from local community leaders regarding how local economic conditions can be further improved to redevelop a stronger tax base to fund much-needed infrastructure improvements in the area.

Over the last several months, I’ve been communicating and working with the Winchester Community High School and the Randolph County School Corporation staffs regarding curriculum upgrades in the near term. I give a special tip of the cap to the superintendent of schools, Rolland Abraham, who is on the point with this initiative. He’s a tremendous leader and is allowing me into his inner circle to coach and mentor around all things manufacturing.

The intent going forward is to reach out and involve local businesses, determine the basic skill needs the local graduates must have to succeed working for local manufacturers. These will include not only technical and machine skills, but development of soft skills as well.

The primary objective is to have high school students graduate with a full semester’s worth of manufacturing course credits that are transferable to an Indiana tech school. With that done, they will complete their training in just three semesters for an associate degree, or sooner if they seek only a one-year certification for a particular skill.

Incredibly Rewarding Experience

I’m especially enjoying the opportunity to do some near-term mentoring with the advanced manufacturing students at WCHS. I’ve donated untold hours working with not-for-profit organizations over the years, but I must say working with these students (and also school administrators and teachers) to make a difference in this community is the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. I’ve helped them purchase new equipment and renovate their space. The students did CAD layout designs focused on flow and 5S. They’ve taken ownership of the journey.

By this month they will have transformed their “metals lab” into a state-of-the-art advanced manufacturing center (AMC). My family also has established a manufacturing scholarship as a long-term commitment for students seeking manufacturing jobs. It’s our way of paying it forward to help the people and the town make their way back to prosperity–to once again become a place where the young people don’t have to leave the area to find meaningful work and a good paycheck.

Critically important, of course, is that the entire school corporation’s leadership is highly focused on dedicating the new AMC and on further developing the manufacturing curriculum. Two new courses will be ready to roll out by August.

Our hope is that regional employers will begin to “place orders” for the students. There already is one local company prepared to hire several of the welding class as their needs continue to expand. Hopefully, economic development folks will take the ball and more actively seek and recruit more manufacturing plants to the area.

Just a few words about tech schools. Ivy Tech is a statewide organization with more than a dozen sites. As previously mentioned, the Ivy Tech connection for mideastern Indiana is in Richmond. Another major player in the state, also with multiple campuses, is Vincennes University, Vincennes, Indiana. Their programs also will be explored to determine if they can contribute to the high school curriculum as well. 

The bottom line is this: I’m convinced that after years of manufacturers being critical of schools for not providing ready-to-work young people, educators have stepped up and, in a growing number of states, are playing an important role. Another great example of this in the state of Georgia, where I now reside.

There are two major explosions in employee demand going on in northeast Georgia: the enormous growth of manufacturing and health care facilities. Statewide initiatives, coordinated with county/city leaders to expand practical education, are doing a great job. Manufacturing plants are going up all over, with a particularly noteworthy expansion in Gainesville, Georgia, Hall County. Lanier Tech has expanded into a new 350,000-square-foot facility. Hall County’s unemployment rate as of November 2018 was an incredible 2.6%.

Manufacturers, Get Engaged

Perhaps one of the most glaring weaknesses that remains is that manufacturing leaders may not be proactively engaged enough to participate in and influence the process of education for manufacturing careers. I’d suggest that vice presidents of operations/manufacturing, along with their human resources departments, be part of the solution for making sure they get the local talent needed for their operations. Some companies are more culturally open to community involvement than others. Some may simply delegate the job to the human resources department without much oversight and guidance. It’s time for manufacturing and HR leaders to take a leading role.

I’d also suggest that it’s time for local leaders of manufacturing operations, company training center leaders around the corporate world and yes, senior manufacturing leaders, to elevate their level of interest and participation in making strong connections with the high schools and tech schools, in areas where they need manufacturing workers of all stripes.

Vice presidents of manufacturing/operations are encouraged to become involved in developing strong working relationships with the high schools and tech colleges. Provide expertise. Help with funding. Finally, senior leaders—for example, senior vice presidents—should be aware of opportunities and assign members of their staff to take active roles in providing guidance and helping schools deliver the necessary education and training.


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