Ashleigh Royer expected to see several hundred workers packing shoes into boxes when she and about 40 other members of her high school class visited the Clarks Americas distribution center outside Hanover in early October.
What the South Western School District senior did not expect to see was robots — robots and gizmos and gadgets of all kinds moving boxes of loafers and boots through a 450,000-square-foot distribution center that Clarks employees say is the largest building in Adams County.
Companies in fields like manufacturing and distribution have spent the past decade or so fighting the perception that working with them means signing up for hard manual labor in dirty factories. They also have to work against years of conditioning that has told kids they are failures if they do anything other than attend a four-year college after high school.
But businesses can’t fight that fight alone. They need help from schools to make sure the next generation of workers knows about career paths in manufacturing-related fields, said Lynda Morris, executive director of the Capital Region Partnership for Career Development.
If schools and other stakeholders do not do their part to educate kids about these careers, manufacturers might decide they need to move elsewhere to find the right labor pool as their baby boomer employees hit retirement age.
“Health care (jobs) will always exist here; logistics will always exist here,” Morris said. “I have a concern that if we don’t continue to demonstrate what viable and important and well-paying jobs there are in manufacturing, manufacturers do have other options.”
Educating about options
So who is responsible for teaching the teachers about these jobs?
At South Western School District, the answer is Mrs. Dennis.
Lisa Dennis is the career counselor for the district’s high school, which sits near a sort of manufacturing hub just outside Hanover. Although Hanover, like the rest of the country, has seen a steady decline in factory jobs since the industry’s heyday in the 1970s, the borough and surrounding area is home to the likes of Clarks’ distribution center, Utz Quality Foods, a major Snyder’s-Lance plant and R.H. Sheppard Co., a manufacturer of commercial vehicle steering systems, engine pumps and related products.
Dennis frequently fields calls from these kinds of companies asking about students who might be interested in joining their workforce. She helps make connections and organizes programs like factory tours to help not just students but also teachers understand the options that are available.
“I think they need to know these are jobs you can go into, and you can go into right of high school,” Dennis said. After receiving that first job, high school graduates can often move up the company ladder or receive reimbursement for college tuition.
The issue is getting kids, parents and teachers to understand that a four-year college might not be right for every student – and that’s sometimes a hard pill for people to swallow after they have received years of college-is-best conditioning.
Kathy Miserendino, who teaches workforce and business-related classes at South Western, has noticed this attitude when talking to her students.
When she asks her students if they plan to attend college, many raise their hands. When she asks how many have parents, teachers and other people asking them about where they plan to go to college, almost all of them raise their hands.
These kids also often feel like they need to leave the Hanover area to find a good job – a misconception Miserendino is happy to debunk, especially given all the local employer tours she has gone on through Dennis’s program.
Partnering with businesses
In many districts, career counselors like Dennis receive input from local business leaders and chamber groups to educate students and teachers about the kinds of career paths they may have never considered. That might mean careers that do not require a four-year degree, as well as jobs like engineering or occupational safety that do require a college education but are available in places like Clarks, where they might not have considered working in the past.
Dennis is far from alone in the midstate when it comes to educating educators about manufacturing jobs. At McCaskey High School in Lancaster, for example, teachers in the school’s vocational labs receive guidance from volunteer industry professionals as they develop their curriculums, said John Graupera, a pre-engineering and pre-architecture teacher who has worked at the school for 22 years.
These partnerships also help ensure students receive information directly from people working in the field, something McCaskey facilitates through mentorship programs offered by groups like the local Rotary club and SkillsUSA, a national career-training organization. McCaskey also invites in recruits from schools like Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster.
Businesses who participate in these efforts to educate schools can also reap benefits.
Clarks was one of many midstate employers to open its doors to high school students this month during Pennsylvania Manufacturing Week, which ran from Sept. 30 to Oct. 6.
For Clarks, the visit from South Western was a chance to connect with the local community and introduce people to the company’s Hanover-area distribution center, which opened several years ago but was not ready until recently to accommodate visitors, said Teresa Gonder, senior director of human resources for several of the company’s Pennsylvania-based operations.
Clarks manufactures its products overseas but has hundreds of employees at its Hanover-area distribution center. That center is not having any issues filling jobs, Gonder said, with the exception of a few positions that require highly specialized training.
Still, the company’s leaders want to make sure people entering the workforce in the future see them as a viable employer.
“These kids are bright, they’re talented,” Gonder said. “We want them to bring that back here.”
Pairing up high school teachers and students with the people who work in manufacturing businesses can go a long way in making sure teens get the message about career options. Morris, of the Capital Region Partnership for Career Development, thinks these efforts could have even more impact at younger grade levels.
Morris’s organization works as a conduit between midstate businesses and more than 20 schools in Cumberland, Dauphin and northern York counties. Right now, she said, many schools wait until students are within a year or two of graduation to really start showing them their career options. That approach, she worries, can sometimes leave teens feeling overwhelmed and underprepared.
“When we’re presented with all these options, we tend to choose none of them,” she said.
Morris believes the solution could lie in programs that work to develop business partnerships as early as elementary school to get kids thinking about the possibility of working in manufacturing, either on the factory floor or in a white-collar position like human resources or information technology.
Setting kids down the path to skilled trades is common in some European countries like Germany, which separates students into three educational tracks around fifth grade. One track prepares kids for college, one aims them toward apprenticeships and one provides resources for slower learners.
What Morris has in mind is nowhere near as extreme. She would be happy to see more career-focused programming at the elementary and middle school levels. That could happen with Pennsylvania’s new school district rating system that is set to go into effect in the 2018-2019 school year.
The Future Ready PA Index would replace the current tool, School Performance Profile, scores as the official measure of districts’ abilities to prepare kids for careers. The School Performance Profile relies heavily on standardized test scores in its rating methodology; the new index will also take into account factors like availability of Advanced Placement classes at the high school level and, importantly to Morris, career awareness programs at elementary schools.
If students start learning about manufacturing at a young age, she hopes, maybe employers will have a better chance of bringing on new talent when their current workforces fade out.
“We’re kind of at this pivotal place where there is tremendous need,” she said. “Pennsylvania no longer has the luxury of complacency about employment.”