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What’s So Cool About Manufacturing?: On Creating the Ever-Expanding Youth Program

WSCAM logo transparent

ProtoCAM has been involved in the What’s So Cool About Manufacturing? (WSCM) video contest for four years now, but the program was originally created back in 2013 when the Manufacturers Resource Center (MRC) recognized the impact negative perceptions of manufacturing jobs were having on the manufacturing workforce. “Back then, of course the most important thing manufacturers were talking about was the skills gap,” says Karen Buck, the Manager of Workforce Initiatives at MRC. “We’re committed to small to mid-sized manufacturers, to help them succeed in whatever it is that they need in order to be more competitive, and their number one need was the right workforce,” Buck recalls.

Addressing the Problem

WSCM team 2019

ProtoCAM’s 2019 WSCM team

The central issue with creating this skilled workforce was the incorrect, but common misconception that manufacturing jobs are “dark, dirty, and dangerous,” and also misconceptions surrounding career and technical education. “[Lehigh Career & Technical Institute] is one of the largest and best career and technical schools in the state, and one of the top in the country…and yet some of their manufacturing programs were half-filled. We just knew this was an awareness problem,” says Buck. The problem recognized, MRC decided to partner with Da Vinci Science Center, Lehigh Career & Technical Institute (LCTI), and Workforce Board Lehigh Valley to apply for a state grant that would allow them to begin to produce an awareness program.

The newly-formed team was soon awarded with a $300k grant and tasked with creating repeatable and transferable programs for the state of Pennsylvania. Empowered to pursue their mission, the team launched a number of awareness and educational initiatives demonstrating what really goes on in advanced manufacturing facilities. “We knew that as soon as [students, administrators, and parents] saw these high-tech work environments…they would recognize how great these careers are,” Buck emphasizes.

Inspired to Go Beyond

WSCAM 2019 filming

Learning about manufacturing

These original initiatives were impactful, but the team wanted to do more. Then inspiration struck Jack Pfunder, President and CEO of MRC, when he happened to witness his young grandson making a movie on his mother’s iPad. Pfunder realized that media was the key, and WSCM was born as an innovative career awareness program implemented as a contest between area school districts. Assisting in getting the message about advanced manufacturing careers out to the community was the addition of the Viewers’ Choice element to the competition, in which individuals in the schools and local communities had the opportunity to vote for their favorite video and to widely share the competition and its goals.

After launching with 19 teams in Lehigh and Northampton counties, the program has expanded to 15 contests across the state this year, including 240 middle school teams working with an equal number of unique Pennsylvania manufacturing companies. Over 900,000 votes rolled in online over the course of all the contests this year, demonstrating the program’s impact. MRC also added the Best of PA awards last year, in which teams from all of the regional contests compete for the title of best in the state. “It’s a movement, and it’s working,” says Buck.

Continuing to Create Repeatable Programming 

WSCM Best of PA Holder

A Best of PA badge holder

The contest became bigger than anyone anticipated, with the successful collaboration of schools desiring project-based learning opportunities and career awareness programs for their students, and manufacturers with their need for better perceptions of their craft. Other states are now beginning to implement the contest, while Buck stresses her desire to solidify the program’s impact by continuing to saturate PA. “There is plenty of room for growth in Pennsylvania to actually move the needle, causing students to, number one, consider careers in technical education because that’s the fastest way to get the right technical skills for our manufacturers; but if career and technical education not for them, to take advantage of the STEM classes that are available at their high schools,” Buck says. “We have plenty of work to do to continue to move the needle.”

Additional initiatives from the MRC to promote STEM careers includes the PA Dream Team program. The Dream Team consists of a group of young professionals in STEM careers at local area manufacturers who are trained to go into the classroom and teach students everything about their STEM careers, from how they first became interested in the field, to other job opportunities in their companies, to where they eat lunch at work. “That’s what students want to hear. So, [the Dream Team members] come in and we train them to tell their story; we train them to provide age-appropriate activities that solidify what they do at work,” says Buck. Like the WSCM contest, the MRC’s goal for implementing and developing the PA Dream Team is repeatability, not just success.

Showcasing Manufacturing Ability

The MRC and the team behind WSCM believe in getting students into these manufacturers’ facilities to see what they can really do. As one of the companies MRC strives to showcase, ProtoCAM was tasked with producing a prize for all the Best of PA nominees as part of the Best of PA awards this year. The result is a 3D-printed badge holder with special spinning gears to highlight students’ future business cards or trade show name tags. Buck emphasizes that this showcasing of what manufacturers can truly do and produce is what the WSCM contests are all about. “We thought that what [ProtoCAM is] doing is super cool and kids need to see it. Parents and kids and educators, they need to see what’s happening at ProtoCAM; it’s just that cool!”

Check out all of the Best of PA contest winners here: https://www.whatssocool.org/contests/best-of-pa-contest/.

To learn more about What’s So Cool About Manufacturing?, visit https://www.whatssocool.org/.

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