Manufacturing Day combines classroom, workplace
by Clay Neely
The growing disconnect between traditional education and the immediate needs of the manufacturing industry was the focus of the local Manufacturing Day held recently in Coweta County.
Educators and local industry employers gathered at the Coweta campus of West Georgia Technical College south of Newnan to share their experiences for National Manufacturing Day on April 18.
With an emphasis placed bridging the gap between the classroom and the modern workplace, the dialogue also included the growing problem employers are having with job recruitment.
Representatives from Coweta industries such as Grenzebach, Yokogawa and Bonnell echoed very similar sentiments, as their companies are now experiencing a growing generational gap in terms of viable candidates.
Donald White, science content specialist for Coweta County School System and focusing on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), led the discussion about the problems both teachers and employers are seeing.
“Frustration on both sides is a common refrain,” White said. “Educators think about their task they are given and want to save the world through education. What they might not understand is that their frustration is also on the business side.”
In a diagram titled “The STEM pipeline,” White presented a snapshot of just how quickly many students fall through the cracks on their way to the workforce.
In 2001, there were more than 4 million students entering high school. Four years later, 2.8 million actually graduated and only 1.9 million went on to a two- or four-year college. Fewer than 300,000 were majoring in STEM fields and only 167,000 of those studying in STEM fields graduated college.
“It comes down to one thing,” said White. “Because of this leaking pipeline, we don’t have enough people to fill the jobs.”
In order to correct this, White believes that classrooms must be multi-dimensional, with both teachers and students incorporating and exploring educational opportunities that go beyond the traditional classroom.
“Our classrooms can no longer be limited by a teacher’s experience,” said White. “As a teacher, I had no other work experience prior to my job. I know my heart was in the right place but wondered if I was missing something.”
White felt that by incorporating the classroom into the world of 21st century manufacturing, both student and educator can benefit from the acquired knowledge of what is needed and what is available to students.
One of the disconnects between students and employers involves the types of jobs that are needed, with White citing that 71 percent of future jobs will be in computing.
“However, we don't even have basic computer programming to offer our students – although every single job will require it,” White said.
After the initial debriefing by White, the attendees broke into small, round-table discussions between local employers and educators.
Speaking to one group was Rich Westerfield, VP sourcing and manufacturing for Yokogawa, one of Coweta’s industries.
“It’s getting incredibly difficult to find new, qualified employees,” Westerfield said. “Thirty years ago, when we came here, you could get up to 100 applicants and I really don’t know what’s changed. Perhaps it’s the preconceived notion of what manufacturing really is.”
Westerfield was not alone in his experience. A number of both educators and employers attending conceded that many young people associate manufacturing jobs with hot warehouses, backbreaking work and little reward.
“In order to help correct this misconception about what modern manufacturing is like, we need the help of educators to help reach the parents about what many of us have to offer,” Westerfield said.
Westerfield, among participating representatives from some of Coweta’s largest manufacturing companies, feels that one of the largest problems they face is simply educating parents in terms of what kind of opportunities can be found in this field.
“Most parents are focused on the four-year college route and in the traditional fields that they might have experienced,” Westerfield said. “The fact is that the four-year university programs aren’t for everyone. That’s not a reflection of a student’s intelligence, it’s simply a matter of finding the right fit.”
Simply put, local manufacturing representatives feel that the concept of tech school is outdated and flawed.
By involving representatives from local manufacturing in the schools, both parents and educators can discover the new fields and opportunities that are directly available in the Coweta area.
Through apprenticeship programs, students can find what works best for them and be allowed the freedom to experience a variety of possibilities in the field of manufacturing and just how they work.
A statistic that raised many eyebrows was that less than 50 percent of traditional four-year university graduates actually go into their field while 90 percent of technical college graduates do.
“This is not only frustrating for the graduates but for many parents as well,” Westerfield said. “At Yokogawa, we even offer tuition reimbursements for qualified applicants. We simply need those who are willing to show up on time and put effort into their work. They might not have a 4.0 GPA, but it’s their attitude that dictates their ability to succeed in the company.”
Brad Landrau, human resources coordinator at Bonnell Aluminum in Newnan, agreed.
“Not every student needs a four-year, university education,” Landrau said.
“I think both parents and students look at manufacturing as a dead-end road – when it couldn’t be any further from the truth,” he said. “If anything, this is a fast-track to success and allows students to bypass the service industry.”
Reiterating the integration of the classroom with industry, Westerfield believes that a curious, problem-solving mentality is welcomed in the field of manufacturing.
“There are things you essentially have to learn on the job, and most of the people that work for us are hands-on learners to begin with,” Westerfield said. “Asking why is an important aspect of what we do. We want our employees to feel empowered to create new solutions.”
One of the biggest arguments made for attending a two-year college is the multitude of options that one may have as opposed to a four-year graduate in a specific field.
“The two-year route offers a student a variety of paths to success by exploring different avenues to take and good opportunities,” Westerfield said.
Rounding out the afternoon’s discussion, White emphasized to both teachers and counselors that bridging the gap between school and the manufacturing sector will ultimately fall on educating the parents of the students.
“It all comes down to making parents aware that tech school or a two-year college isn’t a compromise,” White said. “It gives them an opportunity to decide if they’re ready to enter the workforce or continue their studies into a four-year university program. You give your child a much better idea of what they want to do with their life.”