Teachers, professors and other academic leaders often emphasize that among the greatest challenges in education and training is getting students engaged. This theory holds true regardless of the age of students, the school they attend or the subject they study.

One effective strategy for engagement, according to many experts, is creating classroom environments that offer hands-on experiences, passionate instructors and clear connections to real-world applications.

This approach is particularly vital to spark interest from young people to consider a career in manufacturing, often maligned by negative perceptions from parents, the media and even some educators. This occurs despite the fact that the sector has numerous positions available for skilled, trained workers.

“There’s still a perception that many manufacturing careers are ‘dirty, greasy and nasty,’” said Brandon Haselden, academic chair of advanced manufacturing and industrial technologies at Horry Georgetown Technical College in East Conway, South Carolina. “Many careers in manufacturing are exactly the opposite because of the integration of robotics, automation, control systems and computers. Educating students and prospective students about modern workday environments in manufacturing has opened some eyes.”

Ryan Blythe, founder of Georgia Trade School in Kennesaw, Georgia, agrees that creating excitement for opportunities in manufacturing energizes young people about education in the skilled trades. Blythe is involved in Go Build Georgia, a program under the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s workforce division, which aims to promote education in the trades and connect graduates with job opportunities.

“The awareness level that kids in Georgia now have about manufacturing is really increasing,” Blythe said. “A decade ago with nothing on the horizon, it wasn’t even a thought. When you thought of skilled trades, it was construction. Things have really changed.”

Manufacturing Day microcosm of strategy

The nationwide Manufacturing Day initiative is a dramatic microcosm of this effort to engage and educate young people in manufacturing. The fifth annual celebration scheduled this Oct. 7 will bring together thousands of manufacturers to host students, teachers, parents, job seekers and community leaders at open houses, plant tours and educational sessions designed to showcase modern manufacturing technology and careers. Last year, 2,600 events attracted more than 400,000 participants.

“These events are in many ways ‘living classrooms’ that enable manufacturers to convey their passion for what they do and how young people can embrace the profession,” said Ed Youdell, president and CEO of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, one of the co-producing organizations. “Like those educators who seek to engage students in important course work, our goal is to bring manufacturing into the mainstream, highlight its attributes in a personal way and introduce young people to the career options and exciting work environments manufacturing offers.” 

The level of engagement young people attained at 2015 Manufacturing Day activities would make any educator proud. According to a Deloitte perception survey of participants, 81 percent of student respondents are more convinced manufacturing provides careers that are both interesting and rewarding, and 71 percent are more likely to tell friends, family, parents or colleagues about manufacturing.

Educators’ responses to the survey also illustrated the positive impact Manufacturing Day has on public perception. Ninety percent indicated they are more likely to encourage students to pursue a career in manufacturing.

Starting at early age beneficial

And this encouragement is quite beneficial when it begins at a young age. For example, the Power Technical Early College at the James Irwin Charter School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, starts students in industrial arts classes as early as sixth grade. Principal Rob Daugherty said there’s always been a strong engagement in shop class because students can create tangible objects and immediately see the benefits of education.

Connecting learning to action can create higher engagement levels, especially for those who may not otherwise do so well in a traditional school setting, according to Daugherty.

“When a student gets to hear it, learn it, do it, see it being done and then expand upon it, they remember why it works,” he said.

The early foundation and exposure can lead to stronger student engagement in the latter years, Daugherty added. He said it’s a pivotal age for learning and one where students typically start thinking about how they will use their education later in life. For this reason, the Manufacturing Day initiative also reaches out to young students. For example, one event in 2015 brought fourth and fifth grade STEM students from their elementary school to the Lockheed Martin facility in nearby Oldsmar, Florida, for a tour and to meet several of the company’s executives. 

“The great enthusiasm these students exhibited at Lockheed shows how we can get children interested in manufacturing at young ages,” said Dr. Marilyn Barger, executive director at the Florida Advanced Technological Education Center, who accompanied the group on the tour. “The questions they asked, their comments and just the awe and wonder on their faces when seeing manufacturing in action were exciting to witness.”

For those young folks who do get engaged and seek a career in manufacturing, they can turn to schools like Power Technical that offers a substantial learning experience in its manufacturing and construction track. By eighth grade, students can attain certifications to carry with them for the rest of their lives. In ninth grade, they learn how to run a metal lathe and weld. By the 10th grade, they learn about everything from motors and air conditioners to electrical wiring. Upon starting 11th grade, the students pick a trade to specialize in and spend the remaining time honing that craft.

Additional strategies help engage

Another strategy that keeps engagement high is small classrooms, which allow for greater hands-on work and intense instructor involvement. For example, at Georgia Trade School, welding courses are capped at 15 students per class and feature at least two instructors. This low student-teacher ratio helps ensure individualized and quality training.

Awareness of the prospect for economic opportunity can have a significant impact on student engagement, as well. According to academic chair Haselden, students at Georgetown Technical College are constantly reminded and receive reinforcement that everything they learn and do leads to employment and solid career opportunities. The school also maintains strong relationships with employers by taking constructive criticism and adjusting curricula or strategies to ensure the institution produces top-quality graduates.

Haselden said the school is near 100 percent job placement, and this economic motivation can go a long way in keeping students focused on the program.

At Georgia Trade School, which has a placement rate in the mid-90 percent range, employers from multiple sectors throughout the South come to the facility to discuss job options. Some will even test welders on-site at the school. The school also highlights in presentations graduates who are earning solid incomes.

“It’s big when they see someone who graduated only a few years before them are earning $60,000 per year,” said the school’s founder Blythe. “You can go to school, learn a trade and get a job without even leaving the building.”

Manufacturing Day events also focus on such success stories to further spark engagement from students and even educators, according to Youdell.

“We love telling participants about individuals such as Chris Monzyk who, as a trade school student, participated in a Manufacturing Day tour at a Missouri tool and die firm, was identified by the company as a possible recruit and soon was hired as a machinist,” Youdell said. “Then there was Micah Rider who, as a high school student, took a Manufacturing Day plant tour arranged through a local Kansas technical college, enrolled at the school and the next year was leading a facility tour.

“Both educators and manufacturers must be committed to employ engagement strategies and programs to further spark interest in the profession from young people,” he added. “It’s estimated that over the next decade, some 2 million jobs will go unfilled due to manufacturers’ inability to find talent with the required skills. That number alone makes this mission so critical to the success of American manufacturing, truly the backbone of our economy.”

For more information about Manufacturing Day, visit www.mfgday.com.

This article was supplied by the Fabricators and Manufacturers Association.