Workforce-related issues are paramount in the minds of most, if not all, manufacturers. Attracting and maintaining talent has led to the discomfort most manufacturers have experienced as volatility grips the pandemic-influenced economy.
Adding to that discomfort is the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which requires that talent in the education pipeline possess digital skills for jobs that exceed the workforce competency available today, or perhaps don’t even exist yet. How are we positioning the future workforce in preparation for these jobs—particularly in the domain of manufacturing— to address the needs of an Industry 4.0-ready workforce?
Conversations with influential representatives of K-12 and higher education reveal innovative solutions that will help manufacturers meet their needs in the digital era. These examples provide a roadmap for optimism.
Grand Valley State University, for instance, is in pursuit of solutions that engage K-12 students, expanding the college-going population, particularly where it relates to STEM curricula, both through bootcamps that exist at the university, or through university outreach to the community. These programs have, at their heart, manufacturing-related experiences and touch about 25,000 K-12 students in a typical school year.
"We act as the coordinator and physical agent for [many of the] FIRST Robotics activities here in Western Michigan,” said Paul Plotkowski, dean of the Padnos College of Engineering & Computing at Grand Valley State University.
The university interacts with local elementary and high schools through FIRST Robotics, offering space within the institution, the equivalent to a practice field. Last year, most of these teams made it to the world championships.
Grand Valley is also home to The Regional Math and Science Center, which focuses on K-12 outreach and improving education in science and math. The Center partners with Ann Arbor SPARK’s MI STEM Forward program for the purpose of retaining talent in Michigan. The university also has many other related K-12 engagement programs, notably STEPS (Science Technology & Engineering Preview Summer) with a theme around aviation that’s aimed at students in 6th and 7th grade.
Dr. Paul Salah, superintendent at Huron Valley Schools, and John Tavernier, assistant superintendent of Teaching, Learning & Technology at Huron Valley Schools, also have some innovative ideas up their sleeves for promoting manufacturing at the K-12 level. Because of structural limitations at the elementary school level—curriculum requirements for example—the district has had to become more creative in the pursuit of success.
Some of that success has come in the form of tailoring and customizing career tech-ed curriculums which has helped, but Salah says, “there are still structural limitations that exist that disincentivize students from being able to pursue opportunities in the trade and manufacturing trades in particular.” Despite those limitations, both Salah and Tavernier continue to innovate and think creatively about solutions that make a difference.
Something as simple as designing the high school course catalogue to align with career pathways coursework can have profound implications on accessing manufacturing and tech-related skills.
“In middle school, students are introduced to Career Pathways that follows an EDP, or Educational Development Program, which every student is required to have,” Tavernier said. “It asks students to really consider what careers they want to have, what are their passions, skill sets, what do they enjoy doing.” Activities exist at the middle-school level that allow them to explore these options, Tavernier says.
Those middle school students who are looking at a specific discipline can then pursue a course of study, say, manufacturing, that enables customized course selections in manufacturing technology, among other concentrations like engineering, math and computer science. And the coursework at the middle-school level requires students to experience manufacturing technologies before they make any decisions at the high school level.
Getting students familiar with manufacturing technologies at an early age is also important, Salah says.
“At the elementary level, and through various bond projects…we’re seeing spaces at every one of the elementary schools in the district receive multiple 3D printer stations,” said Salah “And it’s pretty cool to walk into an elementary school classroom with our youngest students, and they’re just totally fascinated with the 3D images that are on their computer screens, with 3rd and 4th graders who are literally rotating and manipulating models that are soon printed.”
Innovations and solutions like those instituted within the Huron Valley Schools district are notable and provide a sense of promise for the next generation of students approaching careers in the Industry 4.0 ecosystem.
But even if we succeed in meeting these objectives, we overlook a rich opportunity if we don’t include students that represent society as a whole. Dr. Ken Williams, assistant professor at Kettering University admits that “80% of students at Kettering are male and white.” He asks the important questions, “How do we diversify? Promote inclusion? Solve inequities that exist between Detroit and Flint Public Schools, and schools in Troy, Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills? “We need both home and community support. Without this, students fall through the cracks,” he added.
Williams is on the board of Advanced Technology Academy in Dearborn, where the composition of students is disproportionately Black and Hispanic, and where the school promotes both curricular and extra-curricular programs such as robotics. He sees this as the model, noting however that “we have to start earlier. It used to be middle school, but now it’s K-6.” The importance of exposing students to a world outside their existing environments is critical to achieving the diversity we seek. We need to marry family to the community so that STEM can be promoted. “Students need to see people who look like them,” Williams said.
Recognizing that sometime in the mid-2030s, the majority of US society will be comprised of minorities, Williams suggests that we’d better learn to embrace this underrepresented coalition or face the consequences. This is evident, he says, in the statistic that “those corporations that have a diverse employee base are more profitable than those less so. We accept this in a financial portfolio, but not in the workforce.”
We may look at the manufacturing workforce, and like many in the field today, express frustration that talent cannot be found in sufficient numbers and representation to meet current needs. But knowing that institutions like Grand Valley State University, Huron Valley Schools, and Kettering University—and many others like them—are innovating, creating and finding ways to engage students at the K-12 level, is comforting.