Building the College-to-Plant Pipeline

For years, the manufacturing industry has been aware of the significant skills gap in technical fields in the U.S., and the need to encourage STEM as early as elementary school all the way through college, to ensure students aren’t left behind. Despite agreement about this issue, there are few substantial, broad-based programs that truly immerse students in the industrial hardware and software knowledge needed to compete in the global industrial sphere.

One compelling solution to bridging the U.S. skills gap is strengthening the connection between industry and education, directly modeled on the German apprenticeship system. In Germany, companies and local chambers of commerce work closely with schools to facilitate apprenticeships and convey to students the skillsets and degrees needed by employers.

More than 50 percent of German students enter the workforce through an apprenticeship program. Participants often begin an apprenticeship at age 16 while they’re enrolled in school, guiding the educational process and building an ongoing school-to-work connection. Not only is this advantageous to students, it also lowers the friction for companies to find and recruit talent.

Creating an industrial presence in schools so students can understand potential career opportunities and make informed decisions has been the central focus of Siemens Cooperates with Education (SCE), a global program focused on colleges, technical schools, and high schools in the U.S. Instead of making do with 25-year-old legacy equipment, these programs provide students access to cutting-edge industrial hardware and software, combined with the course materials and instructor training that schools need to offer credits. Siemens identified gaps in the skillsets of past graduates relative to industrial needs, then created the program to drive the creation of courses for schools, with the goal of seeing better trained engineering applicants— who already have hands-on experience—in the job market.

A Three-Tiered Approach: Hardware, Software, Information

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A “Wall of Wind” is the backdrop for Amanda Beaton during a stop to visit students considering careers in manufacturing, which is part of her role with Siemens Cooperates with Education (SCE).

To keep the manufacturing industry strong, students must obtain high-level skills in automation, programming, and digitalization. Therefore, educational institutions need to adapt their curricula to encompass training in these areas to prepare them for their careers.

Solving the skills gap can’t be done through one simple fix. Educators can sometimes only accomplish this in close cooperation with industry support. To engage students early and ensure graduates are choosing to acquire industrial skills, students, as well as schools, need access to hardware, software, and information.

Establishing a strong connection between students and industry requires manufacturers and technology vendors to first accommodate educational institutions. Schools, particularly high schools and technical schools, often face many financial hurdles to offering industrial programs, especially hands-on education that requires costly equipment. Schools need support in acquiring the hardware and software to provide industrial programs, including putting together comprehensive courses for students that schools can implement directly. Key industry partners taking the initiative to ensure that local schools have access to the equipment and educational materials students need helps guarantee that the skills in demand at their plants are comprehensively taught.

It would be easy to imagine the power of this model if manufacturers across the U.S. worked directly with nearby schools, hand-in-hand with their primary equipment vendors, to train students and create an onboarding pipeline.

From the student perspective, the same three-pronged focus of hardware, software, and information is critical. Before students enter college, they make decisions about their educational future. The first step is information, which is varied and can be difficult for students to access—but is readily available to any HR department. What positions are most in demand and how much do different jobs pay? What about five-year career paths? And what degrees or certifications are required to be hired?

Students are looking to understand the same things an employer would expect from any interested candidate. However, they often don’t know that the industrial roles manufacturers need to fill even exist, thus never consider them. Providing transparency into the opportunities and requirements is critical to educating students.

If students in industrial programs are only exposed to legacy equipment and outdated software, their initial value to a prospective manufacturing employer is relatively low. Familiarizing students with modern equipment, cutting-edge automation, data visualization, and optimization tools enable them to provide more value with less onboarding time, reducing costs to employers. Modern systems also allow for remote access, allowing schools the flexibility of hands-on lab time, remote lab time, and direct instruction, creating versatility in course offerings, and putting more machine time at the hands of students.

Vendors, manufacturers, and trade associations have the power to take the initiative in solving the U.S. industrial skills shortage. While we already possess the information, technology, and institutional knowledge to train a generation, the component that has been missing is that of forging relationships with high schools, technical schools, and colleges to put these resources into the hands of students to encourage the next generation of skilled American workers.

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