By James A. Mitchell

Photo: John Sobczak

Photo: John Sobczak

“The challenge is clear,” said Emily DeRocco “Getting technology out of the laboratory and into production.”

DeRocco, director of education and workforce for Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow (LIFT), set the tone for the five-state consortium’s annual membership meeting in Detroit. The manufacturing sector is positioned for considerable and sustained growth with each technological development, just as soon as “leaks in the talent pipeline” can be fixed.

More than 321,000 manufacturing or lightweight-related jobs were posted last year in LIFT’s states – Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky and Pennsylvania – compared to about 220,000 the previous year. Yet just over 100,000 applicants had the proper qualifications.

How to steer current and future employees toward the diverse career paths being forged was the theme of the conference, which began on Wednesday, Sept. 30 with a “Manufacturing Day” that included hands-on demonstrations of ninth-grade Detroit students creating a lightweight vehicle via virtual reality technologies.

On Thursday, Oct. 1, each state agency presented a progress reports on steps taken in the past year to address the gap, and hiring managers and educators shared plans for the next twelve months.

Photo: John Sobczak

Photo: John Sobczak

Jan McKeel, Executive Director of the South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance, described a “teachers’ boot camp” that was held summer which offered hands-on training with cutting-edge manufacturing technologies.

“Teacher education is the key,” said Diane Leveridge of the Kentucky Community & Technical College System, which ran a similar summer program for educators.

Others focused on specific populations in need of skill training. Charles Johnson, Interim President of Indiana’s Vincennes University, said the state has as estimated 5,000 unemployed veterans. Working with 19 industry partners an “accelerated training” program was held this summer which posted a 100 percent completion rate, and 90 percent of the participants secured a job. The program proved encouraging enough that a 16-week course at Vincennes is in development, as are state plans for a training facility in partnership with LIFT.

Reaching out to under-served populations was among the priorities in Michigan. In Detroit alone, said Ashish Dasgupta, Deputy Director of Strategic Planning for Focus: HOPE, an estimated 80,000 16-24 year-olds have neither a job nor a high school diploma.

“Even reaching these folks is a challenge,” Dasgupta said. About 12,000 potential workers have been trained in the past three years courtesy of LIFT, Focus HOPE, Macomb Community College and the Southeast Michigan Community Alliance (SEMCA).

Providing opportunities for that population, Dasgupta said, “Can create a lot of social impact.”

Photo: John Sobczak

Photo: John Sobczak

Common cures for shared challenges were the focus of a breakout session that followed, “Setting the Future Course,” during which attendees from companies, colleges and workforce organizations offered recommendations based on individual experiences.

“Will the solutions we’re investing in work?” DeRocco asked rhetorically. As much as educators and training agencies might encourage workers, DeRocco said industry is responsible for seeking out the developing workforce and providing educators with the input needed to develop curriculum.

“We can’t push the workers into a company,” DeRocco said. “They have to pull from us.”

The conference ended with a series of initiatives and options for members to consider, broken down into four areas of training and educational needs: Incumbent workers; community and technical colleges; universities; and K-12 STEM foundational skills.

Photo: John Sobczak

Photo: John Sobczak

Among the highlights:

– Apprenticeships work, attendees said, but brought issues of liability that need to be addressed before launching a program. Some have found success working with nonprofit groups willing to serve as intermediaries and hold liability.

– Teacher awareness of current technologies in the workplace requires an equal emphasis on training the educators, achieved through programs such as summer “boot camp” sessions.

– STEM training in schools can be successful if the programs have industry support, investment and involvement, and should begin at the middle school – not high school – level to bemost effective.

“It’s difficult to find a one-size-fits-all solution,” DeRocco concluded. By working together and sharing resources and insights, initiatives to bridge the missing link between students, educators and industry can bring more solutions to more of tomorrow’s workforce.

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