When I speak with manufacturing leaders, I sometimes ask them whether they want their own children to pursue a manufacturing career. This often leads to a discussion of how to help students become interested in a career related to manufacturing. The conclusion, more often than not, is that a plant tour is not enough to inspire young, motivated, high-achieving youth to consider a career in manufacturing.
The reason is that a predisposition to manufacturing usually comes from the childhood experience of “making stuff.” And, unfortunately, “making stuff” has slowly disappeared from school curricula over the past few decades. There are even kindergarten classes and preschools where “making stuff” has been removed from the day-to-day activities of students.
Giving students the experience of making stuff is critical if schools are to nurture students who will develop into future manufacturing employees. It starts in preschool and kindergarten, when kids realize that flour and water and eggs can make pancakes and cupcakes. It evolves to taking a block of clay and creating something from their imagination. In junior high school, students are introduced to chemistry and physics and, through labs and experiments, they see the physical results of the theories they are learning. In high school, they learn that languages are not only good for communicating with other people and cultures, but that they are also useful for communicating with machines.
But, sadly, “making stuff” is being removed from the priorities of state educational systems, and the children of the poor and disenfranchised are most likely to be the ones who do not get exposed to the beauty and empowerment that comes from “making stuff.”
Manufacturing executives need to fill in the gaps that are developing in the public education system. Already, many STEM professionals volunteer in after-school organizations and in clubs and societies that support “making stuff.” There are growing numbers of clubs that help kids explore art, science, and technology such as robotics and radio-controlled models. Kids who participate in these programs are all being prepared for potential careers in manufacturing. They may not realize it—their parents may not even realize it—but when kids are exposed to the power of making something, they can combine that knowledge with other talents in science, engineering, organization, accounting, and other disciplines. These are the skills that can form the foundation for a career in the manufacturing sector.
So how can manufacturing executives help? By working with local schools to return the love of making stuff to the classroom. There is a trend in the U.S. educational system in which third parties create curricula and sell them or give them to school districts. I see the potential for putting together relatively low-cost curricula that can help many more students learn the wonder of making stuff. It would be easy to put together lab kits with CAD drawings that could be modified by students, or a 3D printer and some additional hardware that would allow students to conduct a set of lab problems in which they modify a design to a specific goal, create critical components with the 3D printer, and combine them with other components in the lab kit to make a useful device.
As leaders in U.S. manufacturing, we can wait for government to create something like this, or we can collaborate to lay out approved or sponsored courses and materials. We would be helping students right away. And, when governors and mayors and superintendents ask manufacturing executives, “What do we have to do to attract manufacturing jobs?” manufacturing executives can say, “Here is an example of what you need to do in your schools.”
In my own school, my children are learning about science through a course developed by a local biotech company. That company’s foundation is making a difference when it trains local teachers each summer on how to use course materials to teach science to fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. Some courses share equipment and resources, so the module rotates among multiple schools.
There is such a need for innovation in this area that entrepreneurs put together traveling educational shows/clinics that move from school to school each week. There are hundreds—possibly even thousands—of these experiments going on across the country. We need to choose some of the better ones and facilitate their roll-out to a larger audience, first in high school to get the manufacturing talent we need in next five years excited about manufacturing, and later to younger grades to protect America’s future as a leader in manufacturing.