Catalyst Connection helps teachers prepare kids for plentiful manufacturing jobs (Kidsburgh News)

Why should local manufacturing companies have so many empty hiring spots for good-paying jobs, and how can teachers prepare and encourage kids to snag them?

Scott Dietz, manager of workforce initiatives for Catalyst Connection (which does economic development for Allegheny and 11 surrounding counties), has teamed with the local ASSET STEM Education to create new workshops for teachers that address just this issue. The first one, a pilot workshop this summer, took seven teachers from four school districts (including Keystone Oaks, Mt. Lebanon and South Fayette) to plastics manufacturer Ardex Americas in Aliquippa. They toured the plant for a first-hand glimpse of its work, and learned ways to teach their students in teams using real-life projects relevant to industry.

“Literally every day we have manufacturing companies telling us they can’t find workers,” says Dietz. Besides a skill gap that leaves too many young people unable to operate higher-end technology, he sees an “interest gap”: “We have some phenomenal training programs in our area, but there are no butts in the seats.” That’s despite the fact that there are 3,000 manufacturing companies regionally, which employ more than 96,000 people, making manufacturing the third largest industry, and second fastest growing industry, here

Dietz chalks up the situation partly to misconceptions that manufacturing has all gone overseas, or that its jobs are only “dirt, dark and dangerous,” he says. “Manufacturing is still in our region, and there are a lot of jobs,” particularly in specialty metals, medical devices, plastics and the energy field, from nuclear to renewables, as well as jobs stemming from the Marcellus Shale.

And, he says, they are neither dead-end nor low-paying jobs, with the average salary in manufacturing at more than $56,000 in southwestern Pennsylvania—20 percent higher than the average salary for all jobs.

Sure, there are assembly jobs, but the top eight in-demand positions here are CNC operator, industrial machinery mechanic, machinist, welder, electrical engineer, mechanical/manufacturing engineer, sales engineer, and first-line supervisor of production workers. Only the engineering positions require four-year degrees, but all of the posts call for some sort of advanced training, which can include two-year degrees and vo-tech schooling. “There’s a wide variety of entry points to get into these well-paying jobs,” he notes.

The new workshops for educators here teach project-based learning. It also shows teachers how the skills for manufacturing careers fit into state academic standards. The first workshop saw participants discussing both best practices for classrooms and gaining knowledge about local industry needs.

According to Dietz, teachers were pleased with the pilot effort, noting that school administrators had already been encouraging job-oriented skill training in some of their classrooms.

While the first workshop involved more experienced teachers, Dietz’s organization is developing a version for newer educators to offer in the coming school year. “We hope this becomes systematic,” he says, “and it will be something the teachers can share with their districts.”

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