One of the laments we hear quite frequently in the manufacturing sector is the lack of skilled employees available in the hiring pool. In the age of high-definition video games, social networking, and phones that have more capability than your five-year-old laptop, it's no wonder that manufacturing looks a little boring to today’s youth. To quote '60s counterculture psychologist Timothy Leary, today’s youth literally “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”
It’s not really their fault. For too long, we—parents, schools, and industry—have done a pretty poor job of showing our youth the importance of manufacturing. And not just the importance, but the wide array of technology that comes into play. Manufacturing can be intersting, challenging, and fun. No longer is it just about spinning lug nuts onto a wheel at the end of an assembly line. Today’s modern manufacturing plants use technology that would amaze even the most tech'd-out seventh grader… if only they knew about it.
One company has taken on this educational challenge. Advanced Technology Services actively works with the schools and communities in which they are located to help students explore manufacturing career options for their future. ATS is a services company that improves the productivity and profitability for many of the world's leading manufacturers through production equipment maintenance, information technology, and spare parts repair.
The way the company sees it, if it is going to have a skilled and motivated work force to draw from, it needs to take a hand in creating it.
“Manufacturing is facing a serious challenge,” explains Don Johnson, vice president of marketing for ATS. “More and more of our skilled workforce is approaching retirement, and fewer people are entering the talent pipeline. ATS saw the opportunity to engage students and help to change their perceptions about manufacturing. We partner with schools to show students how the math, science, and technology they are learning in school really will prepare them for the high-tech jobs of their future.”
Better yet, they saw an opportunity to make this connection fun.
ATS created an educational program called Tinker-tronics, essentially a Tinkertoy assembly line but with all the elements of a manufacturing facility.
In the Tinker-tronics exercise, students are divided into two or three competing teams. Each student in the class has a hands-on role to play. On each team, five of the students pretend to be a machine or robot on an assembly line. Each team is tasked with building widgets from raw materials in an assembly-line fashion. Each student “machine” has a part that he or she assembles and sends down the line to the next machine.
Of course, what fun is that? So to add a little real-world spice, unexpected wrenches are thrown into the machine. Throughout the game, the ATS facilitator announces machine breakdowns that can slow down production. When a “machine” breaks down, that student can no longer work on the assembly line until the maintenance technician fixes the machine. The maintenance technician must work through and solve a class-related math problem before the machine can go back into operation.
Each team also has a quality control analyst to ensure that each product will pass final inspection, a safety manager to keep track of how many finished products the team has safely manufactured, an environmental assurance specialist who tears down and recycles the parts for reuse, and a parts distribution specialist who redistributes the parts to the correct machines. Since manufacturing today is so competitive, the team who makes the most completed widgets during the activity wins.
Throughout, students learn about the manufacturing process and the important skills necessary for maintaining sophisticated, high-tech machinery used in factories today. Students also learn the importance of good problem-solving skills as the ATS facilitator relates their classroom studies to real-world applications.
The goal, of course, is to help students learn about manufacturing and the importance of high-tech machine maintenance through a fun, hands-on activity. More important, it demonstates in a very real way how the math, science, and other topics they are taught on a day-to-day basis actually relate to the real world.
Perhaps an unintended outcome of the exercise is that the kinesthetic, or hands-on, learning technique is particularly effective with students who have problems with a more traditional “learning by sitting on your hands” technique. With Tinker-tronics they learn with their hands and their brains.
“We have one child who is a hands on, want-to-do, kind of learner,” explains Meg Black, a teacher at one middle school that has used the Tinker-tronics program. “So when he mentions to me ‘Hey, when can they come back again?’ that’s amazing to me. For him to be excited about coming in and doing something, that’s a wonderful thing for me to be able to see as a teacher.”
What do the kids think?
“Manufacturing actually seems like a very fun career,” says middle-school student Marinos Botros after the exercise.“It doesn’t seem like it will be boring.” Without teamwork, says Marinos, “the assembly line wouldn’t work at all. You need every single teammate there to do it.”
This is music to Johnson’s ears. “Students [are becoming] interested and excited about careers in manufacturing,” says Johnson. “These students are our future workforce, and we need them to work hard in school to gain the skills and competencies that will make them successful in tomorrow’s high-tech jobs.”
Tinker-tronics is led by ATS training specialists that work with middle-school students to expose them to jobs of the future and break down negative stereotypes. “They also work with high school students to recruit them into technical training programs at local community and technical colleges,” says Johnson.
ATS also partners with technical colleges to offer a Multi-Skilled Technical Career Training program. In this program, students learn the fundamentals of electrical and mechanical maintenance. This training coupled with soft-skill and leadership training from ATS prepare them for jobs at ATS upon successful completion of their schooling.
ATS has run the program in nearly 200 classrooms in Greenville, South Carolina, and Peoria, Illinois, since the program began in 2008.