Manufacturers draw in millennials with new training approach
December 23, 2014 12:08 AM
Mark Mattern of Butler Community College's Hospitality Program, left, sophomore Mike Paul, center, and engineering tech professor Mike Aikens review details from a vacuum mold in the school's manufacturing lab.
Butler Community College sophomore Zach Staebler works the Thingiverse Universal Laser System at the school's manufacturing lab.
Butler Community College sophomores Zach Staebler, foreground, and Mike Paul work an injection molding machine in the school’s manufacturing lab.
Zach Staebler works on a three-dimensional mold in a computer CAD program in the Butler County Community College's manufacturing lab at Butler Community College.
Sophomore Mike Paul works with vacuum form molds in Butler County Community College's manufacturing lab.
Chocolate candy with the Butler County Community Collegeon top were made with vacuum formed molds created in the school's manufacturing lab.
A working adjustable crescent wrench built in a 3D printer from a computer drawing.
By Len Boselovic / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Finding millennials who are interested in manufacturing and have the aptitude for it are two challenges facing Western Pennsylvania manufacturers trying to replace retiring baby boomers. But there’s another: teaching millennials once they find them.
Employers are discovering that the next generation of workers learns differently than they did.
“Millennials like to see results right now,” said Scott Covert, who runs an in-house training program at Penn United Technologies, a Butler County tool-and-die shop that employs about 600.
That requires online courses and lots of hands-on work where students learn practical applications of theory.
Part of a 14-part series examining the demographic forces changing the work place.
Week One: Baby boomers impact on the workforce still resonates.
Week Two: Millennials bring opportunities and challenges.
Final Part: Generation X adapts to being sandwiched between larger generations.
At Butler County Community College, which offers a number of manufacturing-related degrees, getting and keeping millennials engaged means using 3-D printers, laser cutters and other equipment that puts a finished product in students’ hands quickly. The products include 3-D printed plastic molds used to make chocolate candies featuring the school’s logo.
“These students are so used to instant gratification. This feeds right into their personality,” said Mike Aikens, a natural science and technology professor. “We have to connect with them. They are digital natives.”
One of the classes Mr. Aikens teaches was developed through National Science Foundation grants promoting science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, skills. The grants fund workshops where teachers learn how to teach other teachers how to incorporate lessons in those subjects into a semester-long class where students make custom-designed electric guitars.
About 2.7 million manufacturing workers are expected to retire in the next eight years or so, according to the Manufacturing Institute, the research arm of the National Association of Manufacturers. While the economy and a lack of retirement savings may persuade some boomers to work a few more years, manufacturers know they will eventually have to replace them.
However, the pool of potential recruits is limited by the mistaken impression that manufacturing means doing dirty jobs in dirty places.
“Advanced manufacturing today is a very high-tech, high-skilled career,” said Neil Ashbaugh, who oversees training at Oberg Industries, a Buffalo Township company that produces machined and stamped metal parts.
Mr. Ashbaugh, 45, joined Oberg as an apprentice in 1993, knowing that it would take him 42 to 54 months to complete the program. Today, online courses allow apprentices to complete the program at their own pace, Mr. Ashbaugh said.
“I still enjoy seminars where I sit and get lectures. The millennials are a little different,” he said.
They include his son, Ian, who is pursuing an associate degree in engineering at Butler Community College.
This semester, IanAshbaugh and his classmates designed novelty holders for USB devices, then produced them on the school’s 3-D printer. Some designs didn’t work because they didn’t take into account the space needed to insert the USB device into a port.
Mr. Ashbaugh said his son reported the assignment taught him that while manufacturing creates neat things, “When you get into business, you have to create neat things that work or solve a problem.’’
Last year, Penn United started a semester-long program that teaches high school students basic technical skills through a combination of online learning and hands-on work at the company’s training center. About 70 to 100 students from Butler, Knoch and Karns City high schools and Evangel Heights Christian Academy are expected to complete the free course this year, Mr. Covert said.
Kennametal, a Latrobe-area tool maker, started a high school-level program three years ago to get students interested in manufacturing careers. About 150 students have completed its semester-long Young Engineers program, which is available at Greater Latrobe Senior High School as well as at Solon High School in suburban Cleveland, where Kennametal has a plant. Several graduates of the program later accepted internships with the company.
Matt Kovac, dean of Butler County Community Colleges Natural Science and Technology department, said the school’s emphasis on hands-on learning and making things fills a void in millennials’ experience.
Previous generations had plenty of opportunities to learn how to fix or make things, whether it was through Lincoln Log kits or getting help fixing a car from their father or neighbor. Millennials “don’t have the built-in familiarity with fixing things, making things,” he said.
Mr. Kovacs wonders if some of the enthusiasm generated when students learn how to make guitars, USB device holders and other things comes from the fact those kinds of opportunities aren’t as abundant as they were when he was their age.
Len Boselovic: 412-263-1941 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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