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Let's make learning fun so youth can fill the skills gap

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The Cumberland Perry Area Vocational Technical School students who entered the Nanoline contest pose in front of the obstacles course. From left, Nick Barber, Logan Davis, Michael Boyer, Brandon Spaulding, Aaron Seidel and Eric Gerow.
The Cumberland Perry Area Vocational Technical School students who entered the Nanoline contest pose in front of the obstacles course. From left, Nick Barber, Logan Davis, Michael Boyer, Brandon Spaulding, Aaron Seidel and Eric Gerow. - (Photo / Submitted)

It is no secret the manufacturing sector has a lingering skilled worker shortage. While it is well known in the industry, it is still a bit surprising, given the sluggish economy.

I think part of it is logistical. In some areas of the country, there are too many people and not enough jobs. In other areas, it's the opposite.

We see it within Pennsylvania. November unemployment statistics, the most recent month broken down by county, show some rural areas of the state, such as Cameron County, with double-digit unemployment. The rate in more urban areas is about half that number.

At any rate, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data highlighted that in 2012 the average manufacturing worker's age was roughly 50, and half of that workforce was 10 to 15 years away from retirement.

Add 2 and 2 together and the obvious need is for the younger generation to meet the needs of the manufacturing sector. ThomasNet's 2013 Industry Market Barometer report concluded that 75 percent of manufacturing workers will need to come from Generation Y by 2025 for the sector to continue growing at its current rate.

So the key becomes drawing younger workers to manufacturing for reasons other than just getting a job of last resort. Overcoming the stigmas associated with factory work is one issue. Getting youth the technology skills needed is another.

That leads me to a cool new initiative started by Cumberland Perry Area Vocational Technical School teacher Chris Champion. His students were struggling with the intricacies of computer programming, so he came up with a creative way to make the learning hands-on and fun: Have the students build small robots, which they would then program.

But as the students became more involved with their projects, it was sometimes hard to find the right parts.

That's when Champion made it his mission to obtain a 3-D printer, so students could both learn about the cutting-edge technology as they learned how to design parts for their robots and other projects.

The $2,500 MakerBot Replicator 2 printer can make objects up to 11 inches long and 6 inches tall.

"I started robotics because some of my students were struggling with programming because when things go wrong, it's hard to put your hands on it,'' Champion said in a news release. "If there's a problem in your code it can be hard to figure out, but if a robot turns right instead of left, you can say 'oh, I have to have a negative instead of a positive.'"

With the 3-D printer, which uses a plastic made of biodegradable cornstarch called PLA, or plyactic acid, the students can make various robot parts and try out other projects. In addition to helping them with their programming skills, working with the printer has introduced them to 3-D modeling programs.

With the help of parts made by the printer, earlier this month a team from the class entered a robot project in the annual Nanoline Contest sponsored by German-based Phoenix Contact, which has offices in Middletown. The team came in second with a project that used Phoenix's Nanoline control system to raise and lower a series of obstacles in a maze that the students' robots had to navigate.

"It gives them the ability to try out new ideas and see what works,'' Champion said. "In any industry it helps if you are able to think creatively and outside the box.''

Amen, Mr. Champion.

What are your thoughts on manufacturing as a career? While going to college is important, should schools be equally focused on giving youth the technical skills necessary to fill these many factory jobs?

John Hilton

John Hilton

John Hilton covers Cumberland County, manufacturing, distribution, transportation and logistics. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at johnh@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JHilton32. Circle John Hilton on .

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