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Sunday, 30 August 2015 22:00

Grassroots Engineering: Manufacturers must introduce engineering careers to students to better fill talent pipeline

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The Science Technology and Engineering Preview Summer program at GVSU represents one example of how West Michigan colleges are preparing the future generation of engineering talent. The Science Technology and Engineering Preview Summer program at GVSU represents one example of how West Michigan colleges are preparing the future generation of engineering talent. COURTESY PHOTO

As manufacturers struggle to find talent to staff the open engineering positions they have today, some executives are taking a long-term view by focusing on ways to fill the talent pipeline with more people in the years ahead.

That has manufacturers partnering with educators to attract more students to consider engineering as a career, often as early as middle school and high school.

“If we’re not getting into the high school or even middle school to (show) what manufacturing is, whether it’s engineering or whatever, then we have a problem and are not attracting students to manufacturing,” said Bob Roth, president of Wyoming, Mich.-based RoMan Manufacturing Inc.

The notion that engineering talent attraction begins in the classrooms of junior and senior high schools has gained steam even among educators at the college and university level.

“I think it is critical to partner with businesses and industry to (develop) new innovative ways for young people to consider engineering,” said Chris Plouff, interim director of Grand Valley State University College of Engineering.

As part of its efforts, GVSU hosted the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) Robotics District Competition in March 2015, which included 40 high school students from around the area. The university also offers an annual Science Technology and Engineering Preview Summer (STEPS) day camp for junior high school-aged girls to explore engineering- and technology-related programs.

“We try to do what we can by partnering with industry and showing students what the outcomes are for good-paying careers that are rewarding not just financially but intellectually,” Plouff said.

OUTSIDE INFLUENCE

Organizations outside of manufacturers and universities have also taken up the charge of attracting young people to engineering and other technical fields.

For its part, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) officially launched its “We Run on Brainpower” campaign in early August with the mission of attracting and retaining future generations of automotive engineers in the state.

As lightweight material and autonomous driving technology are integrated into vehicles, Michigan manufacturers will continue to need a larger pool from which to draw engineering talent, said Kevin Kerrigan, senior adviser for automotive initiatives for the state of Michigan.

“The old Henry Ford assembly line is the picture you get when you (envision) the auto industry,” Kerrigan said. “The truth is that the auto industry is probably one of the most high-tech sectors in the world.”

The campaign uses a series of videos, photos and manufacturing news to attract young students to the engineering field.

“I think it’s absolutely critical to get the young students,” Kerrigan said. “The campaign is targeted to show the younger students the opportunities and technology, but it’s also targeted at parents because (they) are making the decisions for the kids.”

As important as it is for companies and organizations to encourage students in high schools and middle schools to enter the engineering field, it’s equally important to appeal directly to those students’ parents, sources said.

In particular, Roth of RoMan Manufacturing believes smaller manufacturers are at a disadvantage compared to their larger counterparts because engineering is often more integrated into the manufacturing process at plants like his.

“Parents aren’t encouraging their kids to look at manufacturing — whether that’s engineering or otherwise,” Roth said. “We’re still working off our dirty manufacturing image from 40 years ago, but I think we’re making headway.”

In West Michigan, groups such as the GR Makers and Geek Group have also incorporated programs to build students’ interest and skills in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

“Starting in elementary school, we’re trying to give kids access to lots of opportunities that will spark their interest in engineering and design,” said Samuel Bowles, who heads up programing at GR Makers. “We believe that the future of our economy is being built right now and the young people who are in our education system do not have sufficient access to tech and engineering.”

GR Makers hosts a series of programs aimed at sparking children’s interest in STEM fields, including a summer camp this year that focused on robotics. The group also works with professionals in the community to mentor junior high school and high school students.

For the Geek Group, the gap in STEM education results from a lack of hands-on equipment, said Adam Bird, who serves on the organization’s board of directors. While tools such as CNC machines, 3-D printers and robotic components can be cost-prohibitive for schools to buy, the Geek Group gives high school-age students access to them in an environment that allows the youths to create on their own terms.

“Our goal as an institution is to carry forward with where those programs start and generate the concepts,” Bird said.

Despite all of the ongoing efforts focused on middle school and high school students, RoMan’s Roth advocates for manufacturing companies to continue to open their facilities and show their processes to students.

“If we’re not telling our story, students are going to be attracted to the financial or health care sector,” Roth said. “We need those, too, but we need manufacturing just as much.”

Read 5696 times Last modified on Sunday, 30 August 2015 22:30

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