College & Workforce Readiness

Manufacturing-Job Growth Prompts K-12 Training Effort

By Fenit Nirappil — February 04, 2014 5 min read
Sherwood, Ore., high school engineering teacher John Niebergall, left, and teacher Allison Meadows instruct student Garret Heckenberg on how to use a high-tech PlasmaCam, which cuts steel.

A drone helicopter to record marching band formations. A $75 French horn mouthpiece made for just $5. Phone cases emerging from a 3-D printer.

Those are the kinds of projects that Sherwood High School students in Oregon are already churning out. With a $494,000 grant from the state, school officials plan to buy more equipment and expand technology and manufacturing instruction to middle schools, and share their knowledge across the state.

Simple woodcarving in shop class doesn’t cut it for the 21st century job market, school officials say. In the corner of the computer lab, a 3-D printer rests alongside the paper printer. In adjacent, wide-open rooms, students are carving metal, building robots, and using laser and vinyl cutters.

“You read statistics that manufacturing is coming back, but the jobs coming with it are advanced and high-tech,” said Gary Bennett, the academic chief of the 5,100-student Sherwood school district, which is near Portland.

National research bears out Mr. Bennett’s point. By 2018, 42 percent of jobs in manufacturing will require some postsecondary education or a degree, according to findings from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. A 2012 ManpowerGroup study indicated that machine operators and engineers are among the top 10 jobs that U.S. employers have trouble filling.

Many schools are working to meet the demand by modernizing their manufacturing education programs. Nearly 1,300 public high schools and 1,700 two-year colleges offer programs in career-technical education, or CTE, with an enrollment of about 14 million students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that you could live without the output of CTE programs,” said Timm Boettcher, the chairman of the Industry Workforce Needs Council of the Association for Career and Technical Education, which works to increase support for CTE from government and business. “The jobs that require CTE are used everywhere: the mechanics, technicians, engineers, welders, and the list goes on.”

A NextEngine 3D machine scans materials in teacher John Niebergall's engineering class at Sherwood High School in Sherwood, Ore. The school put in place a program to teach students the technical skills they will need to land high-tech jobs in the manufacturing industry.

An Image Problem

Still, advocates recognize that their interests have suffered from an image problem, with the perception that manufacturing in the United States is dwindling, and the jobs it offers are largely low-skilled.

“People still perceive career-tech to be what they think of from 20 or 30 years ago,” said Steve DeWitt, the deputy executive director for public policy at the Association for Career and Technical Education, based in Alexandria, Va. “We’re seeing a better understanding among policy makers and some business leaders.”

But experts say students and parents are a tougher audience to sway.

National data from 1990 to 2009 show a steady decline in the average number of CTE credits earned compared with other subjects—course-taking in communications and design and health care increased, for instance, while enrollment in business and manufacturing classes dropped off dramatically.

Despite that trend, some states are increasing their investments in career and technical education, according to Kate R. Blosveren, the associate executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium, based in Silver Spring, Md. New York is investing in the “P-Tech,” or “pathways to technology” model, she said; Alabama passed a $50 million bond to fund CTE with a mixture of grant and block funding; and Kansas is paying for students to earn dual-enrollment credits for CTE classes.

Building Technical Skills

A career-technical education revitalization program in Oregon distributed almost $9 million among 23 school districts for hands-on teaching projects. The program also encourages school districts to work with each other and other businesses.

That’s a common theme in other initiatives around the country to align educational efforts with specific industry needs. Examples include the Manufacturing Engineering Partnership Program at Coopersville High School near Grand Rapids, Mich., where several businesses work with the school, and the Southwire Engineering Academy, a partnership between a manufacturing firm and Carrolton High School outside of Atlanta.

In Oregon, Sherwood High is among the state’s top academic performers, with a reputation for hands-on technical training. Students there can take wood and metal shop classes, along with five levels of engineering. The state grant will fund professional development and software at Laurel and Sherwood middle schools, so students come to 9th grade with the equivalent of Engineering I experience. That leaves more opportunities to take classes for college credit during high school.

John Niebergall, Sherwood High’s engineering and shop instructor, has kept his students ahead of the curve for more than a decade. Back in 2002, students were already starting to draw 3-D models on computers before grabbing a sander. Now they can take it a step further and make parts and vinyl stickers with automated computer commands instead of by hand. The goal is to expose students to both the brainstorming and hands-on production sides of manufacturing.

“They aren’t going to all be engineers, but a lot of them can be engineer technicians,” said Mr. Niebergall. “If our kids can design and produce, that’s a great skill set.”

Some local businesses are turning to Sherwood High’s manufacturing program for help, said Mr. Niebergall. A local man had a wristband printed on the school’s 3-D printer as a prototype to show a factory abroad.

Now, the Oregon grant is allowing Mr. Niebergall to take Sherwood’s work on the road. He plans to buy a small motor home or mobile trailer, a “FabLab,” filled with computers and manufacturing equipment to teach instructors in rural Oregon how to bring similar programs to their schools and work with other students on projects.

The school has even caught the eye of the manufacturing industry. Students showed off their work at a manufacturing summit in Portland in January, and were featured on a local TV station.

“It’s a constant theme that high schools aren’t promoting manufacturing as a viable option for employment,” said Chris Scherer, the executive director of the Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which hosted the summit.

But he said Sherwood is an exception.

“As jobs in manufacturing, even at the entry level, get advanced, you need more advanced skills to be successful,” he said.

Staff Writer Michele Molnar contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as Rise of Manufacturing Prompts New Efforts to Prepare Students

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