October 30, 2017

Raising awareness to close the manufacturing skills gap

Susan Palisano Director of education and workforce development, Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology Inc.

Q&A talks to Susan Palisano, the director of education and workforce development at the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology Inc. (CCAT), which leads October's annual "Connecticut. Dream It. Do It. Manufacturing Month."

Q. How did the idea of establishing October as "manufacturing month" come about?

A. The Dream It. Do It. (CT DIDI) Manufacturing Month is part of an effort led by CCAT to develop career awareness and ensure Connecticut manufacturers have access to a robust, skilled talent pipeline. The idea was to leverage National Manufacturing Day on the first Friday of October, and use October to showcase exciting careers through events, tours and open houses.

In October, CT DIDI hosted two premier student events: "Manufacturing Mania," with exhibits, hands-on workshops, competitions and guest speakers; and the "Making It Real: Girls & Manufacturing Summit," focused on engaging young women in pursuing manufacturing careers through experiential activities and positive role models. Since 2012 over 2,800 students have attended these events, and thousands more have participated in other Manufacturing Month activities.

Q. What's the most important step in developing a skilled workforce pipeline?

A. The key is to develop student awareness and engagement at an early age. Without knowledge and interest, it's more difficult to backfill the pipeline. Also, today's skilled manufacturing workplace requires good STEM foundational skills. So it's critical to connect classroom learning and real-world application of STEM skills.

There has been limited attention paid to youngsters ages 10 to 14, who are making important decisions about pursuing courses necessary to prepare for skilled STEM careers. This is also when many students lose interest and confidence at succeeding in science and math. Interventions aimed at older students are often too little, too late. Students in this age group also begin to make choices about what kind of high school to go to, what core subjects they will work hardest in, what electives they will take, and what careers they will consider. Unfortunately, students typically make these decisions with limited information, which almost never includes manufacturing-related careers.

Q. Should the onus be on the private sector or government to groom the next generation workforce?

A. It has to be a partnership. Industry needs to play a role at every juncture in developing future talent. The manufacturing community's support of CTDIDI is critical to program success — from those who sit on our industry advisory committee to the hundreds of tours companies provide our Young Manufacturer Academy students to industry ambassadors representing the face of manufacturing.

It's only when industry engages in meaningful partnerships with public institutions and government agencies that we can develop new models of skills-based learning that break the mold of how we've done things in the past.

Q. The state for years has tried to change the perception away from the idea of manufacturing jobs as the grungy, hard labor performed by past generations. Is the message being received?

A. Many still don't have a positive impression of current manufacturing jobs; nor do they believe schools are doing enough to expose students to future careers. While the vast majority of respondents in a 2017 Deloitte survey view manufacturing as vital to economic prosperity, less than 50 percent believe manufacturing jobs are rewarding, clean, safe, stable and secure. And less than 30 percent would encourage their children to pursue a manufacturing career.

But there's a bright side: Those familiar with the industry — and those from more pro-manufacturing demographic groups — are two times more likely to encourage the next generation to pursue a manufacturing career. So we know the messaging works; the challenge is bringing that message to a larger population. When asked what future jobs in manufacturing will look like, most believe they will require high-tech skills and will be clean and safe, as well as more innovative. That's why industry partnerships are so important. The most effective way to change perceptions is to open doors so the public can see first-hand what modern manufacturing looks like.

Q. We know there have been efforts to get more women interested in manufacturing. Are they working?

A. 'Improving the external image of the industry' is cited as the No. 1 priority to improve manufacturers' ability to attract, retain and advance women. Young women today want a great job and a meaningful career — they want to make a difference.

CT DIDI's Girls & Manufacturing Summit was designed to change the perception of the role of women in manufacturing through positive role models. Activities focus on raising awareness of manufacturing-related careers and their skill requirements, workplaces, and educational and career pathways; improving attitudes toward manufacturing; and increasing girls' confidence in their ability to be successful in STEM-related courses and manufacturing careers.

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