Advice on improving manufacturing's future

Reach out and get involved

The FABRICATOR February 2013
February 15, 2013
By: Mark Schwendau

An educator gives metal fabricators advice on how they can improve the overall image of manufacturing and help to develop their next generation of workers at the same time.

Advice on improving manufacturing's future -

Dear Mr. Metal Fabricator,

Going back as far as the Bill Clinton administration, I can remember the forecast shortage of people in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. He recognized it as a threat to our national security.

More recently, in 2010, Manpower, a human resources consulting firm, listed the 10 hardest jobs to fill, and three of those 10 were STEM-related: 1. Skilled Trades, 4. Technicians, and 8. Engineers. In 2011 U.S. News and World Report highlighted the shortfall in an article, “STEM Jobs Outlook Strong, but Collaboration Needed to Fill Jobs.” And in 2012 Forbes also addressed the issue in “America Desperately Needs More STEM Students: Here’s How to Get Them.”

Because the problem does not seem to be getting better, this educator has decided to share his observations and ideas.

The Current Educational Landscape

U.S. public school systems have had a history of trying to prepare 100 percent of the student population for college entrance. This has been a mistake because it overlooks the reality of life. Today 66 percent of incoming freshmen enter college requiring remedial math before they can take basic college algebra.

Also, the degradation of any educational reform discussion into a game of political football hasn’t helped. Politicians seldom ask classroom teachers how to fix the mess that has been created. About 20 years ago, there was some talk of changing the U.S. educational system to a two-track system such as Germany has, but bad politics kept that from happening. In the German system, students are tracked from an early age and later placed on a path for college entrance or some sort of job training. As a result, the country enjoys a lower rate of unemployment and poverty.

Because of this political “back-to-basics” thrust that began in the 1980s, many of the programs that taught both work and life skills have been systematically gutted out of the public educational system. The focus today in sixth through 12th grades is to allow core subject educators more time to teach to standardized exams. The fine arts, sports, and drivers’ education programs have also taken their hits in some school districts. In some instances, a state’s penal system enjoys better vocational/technical programs than those found in public schools.

And what about those all-important test scores for national testing programs? If you compare the modest rise in test scores to the more impressive rise in high school dropout rates, you’ll notice little has changed in most instances. In other words, as the students who struggle drop out, national test scores artificially rise. Hard evidence suggests we have now fallen further behind other nations of the world not just in core academic test scores, but in areas such as patents granted.

Suggestions to Spur Improvement

What can you do about the problem? Here are some suggestions on how you can make a positive impact on schools:

  • Run for a state or national political office to influence education’s direction.
  • Run for a local school board position to influence educational curriculum in the local community.
  • Serve on an advisory committee for an educational program.
  • Serve as a guest speaker and offer a real-life learning perspective to students.
  • Serve as a tour guide in your plant with an emphasis on job roles.
  • Provide donations of rejected or surplus materials to educational programs.
  • Host student internships and job-shadowing experiences to get students with you.
  • Host a competition and provide scholarships to encourage students to get training to be able to work for a company like yours.
  • Lobby politicians to support education initiatives that will provide a return.
  • Lobby politicians to offer manufacturing companies tax credits for internships and partnerships.

In the subject area I teach, computer-aided drafting and design (CADD), our college has struggled to keep enrollment numbers up to match employers’ demand for graduates. Out of the 10 high schools that supply students to the community college’s CADD program, most of them offer far fewer technology courses related to CADD than they did 20 years ago. That doesn’t seem to make sense when students in the community college CADD program are frequently hired before graduation. In fact, employers now are calling as early as September to try to get a line on a well-qualified student who will be graduating in May.

Besides the struggle to get classroom seats filled, I also am finding the need to educate employers who call looking for graduates. Employers say that they want graduates capable of “hitting the ground running,” but that is not realistic. It’s the same as expecting a recent college graduate to have specific work experiences as well. Some of the questions that these employers ask are:

What is the going hourly rate your graduates expect to earn?

I explain to them that in the area of rural north-central Illinois where the community college is located, $15 an hour is a good minimum. In the Chicago metropolitan area, that rate is up to $20.

What kind of probationary period and review do you recommend?

It seems that six months is becoming popular, with some form of a raise and job title bestowed at the end of that term.

What kind of software and hardware system do you teach?

I mention the two CAD programs we teach and explain that we can’t be all things to all people because of program costs. Some on-the-job training is always required.

What steps should I follow in the hiring proc-ess starting with initial contact?

We recommend students research the employer online before personally delivering a resume and completing an employment application. Too often we find students who respond electronically to job announcements are not contacted even to be thanked.

Boosting Manufacturing’s Image

The more employers understand their relationship with the educators who teach their future employees, the better chance those employers will have in securing the skilled and talented labor they need. Some manufacturing companies now are collaborating with educators to make videos for social media websites to introduce young people to occupations that promise bright futures. Some educational institutions are advertising career education on country and rock radio stations where prospective students are known to tune in, recognizing these young people no longer read the newspapers. I personally believe in the value of graduate testimonials plugging not only their career choices, but the employers who hire them.

Students have revealed in multiple surveys that they think that working in a factory is boring and dirty. Even working on a CAD system in an engineering department makes them a geek or a nerd. That is both sad and humorous. They have no idea the good wages available to graduates with technical training, especially when those wages are compared to other jobs, such as retail. Also, they have no idea how personally rewarding it is to challenge one’s mind on a daily basis.

Thank you for your time,

Mark Schwendau

Mark Schwendau

CAD Technology Instructor
Kishwaukee College
21193 Malta Road
Malta, IL 60150

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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