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Schools equip students for factory jobs in new economy

K12 students embed with manufacturers to learn the hard and soft skills to compete in a more demanding economy
  • GERMAN INFLUENCE—At Coweta County Schools, a student apprentice works on industrial maintenance and machine tooling, as part of a partnership with a local German-based company, at nearby Georgia Technical College.
  • NEW SOLUTION—High school engineering students at Pinellas County Schools were faced with a production problem at an electrical component manufacturer last summer. They suggested a new approach that was later implemented.

A Georgia school system partnered with local manufacturers to create German-style apprentice programs that teach skills through project-based learning.

A district on Florida’s west coast expanded manufacturing internships with help from small businesses.

And in Tennessee, high school students are developing high-tech skills and earning college credit at a Volkswagen automobile factory.

School districts are focusing more attention on manufacturing as the need for middle-skill jobs increases. In particular, industrial mechanic programs have taken off as more employers seek workers who have the technical know how to operate advanced manufacturing equipment.

“Programs that combine in-class learning with on-the-job training are the most effective,” says Gardner Carrick, vice president of strategic initiatives for The Manufacturing Institute, the education center for the National Association of Manufacturers trade association.

“These programs allow students to learn manufacturing skills in the context of actual manufacturing applications, and build strong relationships between companies and schools.”

Manufacturing should remain the largest economic sector in the U.S. through 2020, with advanced manufacturing accounting for much of the growth.

By 2020, an estimated 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be created, yet the skills gap indicates 2 million of those jobs will go unfilled, according to the institute’s report, “The Skills Gap in U.S. Manufacturing: 2015 and Beyond.” (DAmag.me/x7).

The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows an immediate need for industrial maintenance technicians, high-tech machine operators and programmers, as well as welders. Proficiency with 3D printers, advanced robotics and virtual reality will be in increasing demand as manufacturing companies adopt those tools, Carrick says.

On average, U.S. manufacturing workers earned $77,506 a year in 2013, about 20 percent more than the average worker in other industries, the report found.

To get these jobs, applicants need at least a community college or industry certification, and some positions require bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degrees.

“There is still a lingering perception that manufacturing careers are low-paying, undesirable work environments with few career opportunities,” Carrick says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.

“Today’s modern manufacturing involves working with the most advanced technologies and systems in the world to create amazing products,” he adds.

Highly transferable skills

In Georgia, the Coweta County School System partnered with local manufacturers to launch a three-year apprentice program. The initiative included Georgia Technical College, which introduced industrial maintenance and machine tooling courses.

“The question came up, ‘What can we as a school system do for you as a company?’” says Martin Pleyer, COO of Grenzebach Corp., a high-tech manufacturing firm that produces machinery used in the creation of glass and building material. “I grasped that opportunity—my dream was, could we establish a German apprenticeship here?”

Leaders in the district, located about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta, worked with Grenzebach officials to design a program based on one already used by the company in Germany.

Three-quarters of the time, students complete hands-on training—with sophomores, juniors and seniors working on projects that teach them specific skills, such as tool handling or metalworking. Students spend the remaining time on classroom lessons, such as learning how different metals react in different situations.

State lawmakers even had to pass a bill to allow the flexible schedule, says Superintendent Steve Barker.

During the apprenticeship, students might design and build a small race car, for example, as opposed to working on projects the company would bring to market.

Instead of periodic testing, students take a midterm and final exam (that count for about 80 percent of their grade) to demonstrate the skills they’ve acquired. Grenzebach supplied a trainer to guide staff in developing the local program.

About 10 students started the apprenticeship program—which expanded to eight different companies in the area—creating a small cohort and rigorous curriculum.

The companies are part of a local manufacturing consortium; some have headquarters in Japan and Canada, as well as Germany and the United States. Students earn $8 per hour their first year, $10 their second and $12 their third.

“One of the misconceptions … is the notion that when you do a program like this, a student can only work with that one company,” says Mark Whitlock, CEO of the Central Education Center, a college and career charter school run by the Coweta County School System.

“Students aren’t restricted to one company; they can go anywhere when they get those skills.”

Wading into the work environment

Pinellas County Schools on Florida’s west coast has a pre-apprentice program, part of an effort to coordinate internships with local manufacturers in three nearby counties. More than 1,000 manufacturers operate in Pinellas County, and the majority are smaller firms that employ 50 people or less.

Through the American Manufacturing Skills Initiative—an industry-led economic and workforce development initiative also known as AMskills—high school students can participate in a pre-apprenticeship program, and graduates can take part in a full-time apprenticeship.

Students start with a summer internship, which begins as unpaid but becomes paid if the employer sees a good fit. After the program, which includes classwork, high school graduates can move to full-time work as a second-year apprentice.

“The idea is that high school students would get acquainted with the work environment, learn what’s going on, and continue their studies in high school and then engage in the full internship program,” says Mark Hunt, executive director of Pinellas’ career and technical adult education.

Among the challenges, Pinellas and other districts faced manufacturing companies reluctant to hire anyone under the age of 18. However, labor laws allow them to hire 16-year-olds who participate in an educational program, which includes instruction in safety and proper tool handling.

“These students have more safety knowledge and more training at 17 years old than an adult who just walks in and applies for a job off the street,” he says.

Students find a purpose

In Hamilton County, Tennessee, 26 juniors spent the 2016-17 school year at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga.

They took English, math and other core courses online from a classroom at the factory, and spent time learning how to fix and operate advanced manufacturing equipment—an in-demand, “jack-of-all-trades” discipline called “mechatronics,” says David Cowan, Hamilton County schools’ director of career and technical education.

“We intentionally selected kids who shine when they get their hands on a piece of equipment and can work with it, as opposed to the valedictorian or a star in English or math,” Cowan says.

The district developed its Mechatronics Akademie in tandem with Chattanooga State Community College, which wanted to boost enrollment in the career technology programs that it operates at the Volkswagen plant.

The district bases two teachers and all the learning at the plant so students don’t have to travel back and forth to their home schools. They can, however, join athletic teams and participate in artistic performances and other activities at those schools.

The students will also take college-level courses in welding, math for engineering, industrial safety and other subjects. The goal is for the graduates to finish high school with about two-thirds of the credits they need to complete the college’s program, which will include on-the-job training that pays a salary.

The Hamilton County district has, in part, paid for the program with dual-enrollment grants, and Volkswagen is launching a scholarship fund. Still students and their families will have to pay a portion of the tuition, Cowan says.

“These kids will tell you this is more like a job to them than school—it’s transformed how they think about school,” Cowan says. “We’ve taken kids who are just making marginal or passing grades, and now they’re excelling in a more rigorous curriculum—now, they see a purpose where they didn’t before.”


Mackenzie Ryan is a freelance writer based in Iowa.