Bringing STEM to Local Schools

An influx of youth with a passion for making things is needed, and three MAPP Member companies are ...

by Dianna Brodine, Plastics Business
Micro Mold Co., Inc. and Plastikos, Inc. of Erie, PA, are committed to encouraging and developing student interest in the high-tech manufacturing trades.

The plastics industry news has been filled with dire predictions about the future of manufacturing without large-scale investments into the education of skilled labor to replace the aging boomer generation. Countless articles have decried the lackluster attitude of young people – and, just as important, that of their parents and school counselors – toward manufacturing as a career path. Yet, an influx of youth with a passion for making things is needed, and three MAPP Member companies are working with their local school systems to make it happen.

Educating the future of Erie

Plastikos, Inc. and its sister company, Micro Mold Co., Inc., Erie, PA, are watching as a long-extinct program is slowly coming to life. In years past, tool and die programs existed at both Central Tech and the local County Skill Center/Vocational Training Center. Both schools saw those programs cancelled for a few years due to lack of enrollment, but the help of local manufacturing companies has stirred life into the curriculum, with the County program re-starting a few years ago and the Central Tech program beginning just this year.

Students involved with the manufacturing programs have the opportunity to learn blueprint reading, measurement techniques and machine safety. The County program also incorporates on the job experience with a co-op program that is available to the students in their senior year. During the co-op experience, students take classes at the high school in the morning and work in an industry for three hours a day each afternoon.

Ryan Katen, general manager of Micro Mold, is on the advisory board for the County program, along with representatives from up to 10 different companies. The advisory committee works to steer the curriculum and help the instructors understand the challenges of the manufacturing community. By working together, the program hopes to set students on a path to lifelong success. “The trades serve an important purpose in setting students up for a successful career,” he said. “Whether they become plumbers, electricians or tool makers, they will have the chance to earn a nice wage.”

“Enrollment still is a challenge, especially at the County school,” Katen explained. A lack of excitement about the machining trade caused the schools to focus on the technology, such as CNC machines, to increase attendance. Katen believes that focus has hurt the student and the local manufacturing community. “It’s difficult to train these students to meet everyone’s needs,” he said, “but by focusing on the technology, the students aren’t learning some of the skill sets that are needed.”

Still, Katen said, Plastikos and Micro Mold are committed to keeping the programs afloat. “Whenever there’s a new class, we’ve given tours of both companies. I try to show them the cool things that are going on in the shop and that we have a nice environment with good technology. It’s good for them to see the equipment being used in the real world.”

In addition, Katen’s dad will be working with the city school this coming year. “The city school has more than 20 students in the class, so he’ll be working with the instructor one or two days a week to help out with their labs,” he said. “Dad likes teaching people how to be a toolmaker.”

Micro Mold has seen the beginnings of positive results, particularly in the form of a student who graduated from the County program and now is installed as an apprentice at Micro Mold. “I hope we can add to the program by helping to place students,” Katen explained. “We need young people, and the industry needs young people. The tooling industry is aging, and in 10-15 years, there will be a critical need.”

Bright students in Buffalo

In Orchard Park, NY, a Buffalo suburb, a national organization called Academy of Finance (AoF) provides an opportunity to introduce manufacturing and engineering to a group of the region’s brightest students. Polymer Conversions, Inc. has been involved with AoF for five years, coming to the program after a board member approached Ben Harp, COO for Polymer Conversions.

“In March of every year, I attend an orientation at the high school for about 40 participating juniors,” Harp explained. “These students elect to go into the program their freshman year, which specifies a certain curriculum and additional activities that must be accomplished each year.” These activities include resume preparation and 100+ hours of internship during their junior year.

At the March orientation, 20 companies introduce their organizations to the AoF students and discuss the internship experience. The students then introduce themselves to company representatives and an interview process begins. As a part of developing their professional skills, the students are required to interview with three companies. “Part of the process is preparing these kids for their professional lives,” said Harp, “so I review resumes and then my staff and I – usually three of us – sit in a room and interview the students. It starts polishing some of those skills.”

Once the interview process is complete, the students rank the companies in order of their preferences for internship, and the companies rank the students as well. Two students are matched to each company for a two-week internship.

The students begin their internships in mid-July, and prior to their arrival, Harp meets with Polymer Conversions’ directors to create an internship experience that meets the minimum requirements. “We allow for basic intern functions, like filing and other administrative tasks, but I don’t allow more than 20 percent of their time to be taken with tasks like those,” explained Harp. “We try to actively engage them in ongoing projects that have real value for the company.”

At Polymer Conversions, the AoF interns are involved in projects that can range from event set-up and marketing activities to mold cleaning and tool room organization. Interns often are invited to sit in on planning discussions and attend off-site meetings at customer facilities. Providing a meaningful experience for the interns has been key to the success of the program at Polymer Conversions, which frequently finds itself ranked as one of the top internship experiences by the students. “Is it always easy to make the time for junior students in high school? No,” Harp said. “The only negative thing about the program is taking the time to set up the structure to pull it off the right way, but we’ve found that engaging the students fully and making them part of providing a solution has been favorable all around.”

Because the internship program can be time-intensive for the employees who work directly with the students, Harp admits that employee buy-in initially was an issue. “The first year, I could feel the resistance with employees, but I insisted we do it,” he said. “Once the employees were working with the kids directly, they realized that the interns were very passionate about adding value and learning from them. People, in general, like to mentor someone else, and my employees quickly saw the satisfaction in helping cultivate someone else’s growth.”

Of the 10 interns that Polymer Conversions has hosted, all were offered an opportunity to remain at the company to complete additional projects or production work. Nine have taken advantage of that offer, and six of those students currently are working at Polymer Conversions while attending college. Several of the students have chosen curriculum paths that will lead them into engineering or the medical field.

“The program is designed to build business leaders,” Harp said, “and exposing them to our industry early in their career-decision process has yielded positive results for Polymer Conversions.”

Challenging the youth of Chicago

With President Paul Ziegenhorn at the helm, Matrix Tooling, Inc./Matrix Plastic Products, Wood Dale, IL, has been working to advance education in STEM at the high school for years. “I’ve been on a number of advisory councils with area high schools,” Ziegenhorn explained. “You get to meet the teachers, administrators and students, and you have an opportunity to weigh in and refute the ‘push’ against manufacturing.” As part of those efforts, Ziegenhorn and Matrix have partnered with the local technical high school to introduce the tooling trade to a new generation.

According to the school’s website, Austin Polytechnical Academy was founded by the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council in 2007 to educate the next generation of leaders in advanced manufacturing. Students learn about careers in all aspects of the industry, from skilled production and engineering to management and company ownership – plus related sectors like intellectual property law. Matrix is one of 60 companies that signed on to support the school.

Erica Swinney is the program director for Manufacturing Renaissance, a 501(c)3 organization formed to look at manufacturing’s viability and its importance in community development, and has been instrumental in setting up the program at Austin PolyTech. “In 2005, the Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council brought together business, labor, local government and education. We needed to find a way to reconnect the education system to these career pathways in advanced manufacturing. Educators and manufacturers were brought together to design what a high school would need to look like, and the result has been Austin Polytech.”

Bill Vogel, industrial coordinator at Austin Polytechnical Academy, explained that, among other curriculums, the school facilitates a 10-week course of study in Manufacturing Science, a work-based learning program where the student has the opportunity to apply theory learned in math class to a real object in the machine shop. “We’re giving the individual student the opportunity to actually make something,” said Vogel, “and also providing a mentoring experience that puts young people in touch one on one with an adult who has experience in manufacturing.”

Ziegenhorn believes the school makes a positive impact simply by exposing students to an alternative path in education. “Not every kid is cut out for a four-year degree, but they may be gifted mechanically,” he said. “This school is on the west side of Chicago in a neighborhood where the kids are coming from homes that may not be ideal grounds for learning. The public/private partnership to get manufacturing and other programs off the ground has been instrumental in exposing these kids to a career option that they might not have been exposed to otherwise.”

Swinney and Ziegenhorn both pointed out that working within a large school system has challenges, especially when trying to implement curriculum changes. “This career program was made possible because before the school, there was a coalition of people who were passionate about manufacturing and teaching the new generation. It was critical to removing obstacles,” said Swinney.

Austin Polytech recently graduated its third class, with 30 students in the manufacturing program. Ziegenhorn and one of his business partners attended the graduation and a reception that was held for the program partners. “The administrators and faculty talked about what Matrix and the other manufacturing companies had accomplished by supporting the program, and it was nice to meet some of the graduates, too,” he said.

“We are in the process of replicating the Manufacturing Renaissance Council in other areas,” explained Swinney, “including New York, Detroit, Baltimore, Mobile and the San Francisco Bay Area. The challenge is finding the right mix of advocates. The school is impossible unless you have leadership from the highest levels of education, manufacturing and labor. You need champions who see that this is more than skills training. It’s also about leadership development.”

Matrix also has thrown its support behind other programs to help the trade. “The Tooling and Manufacturing Association (TMA) has a manufacturing summer camp – two weeks for eight hours a day – and students spend the mornings in class gaining skills for NIMS credentials,” explained Ziegenhorn. “The camp includes a tour of a member company’s facilities, and we have 30 kids coming through here each summer.” Ziegenhorn said the tour begins in the design area to give the students an idea of what products are made at Matrix, and then the students tour the tooling, molding and inspection areas. “It’s a good interaction between the student and the working world,” he said, “and if it nets them a job afterwards, that’s not something everyone their age can say. As a matter of fact, we’ve hired a couple of apprentices that way.”

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