For Benjamin Smith, it started with Legos.
When he was six, Smith would sit down with his dad and build structures using the colorful little bricks, all the while envisioning a future creating real buildings.
“I knew back then what I wanted to do,” the Ephrata native said.
Now 21, Smith is a piece detailer at Lancaster County manufacturer High Concrete Group LLC, creating precision computed-generated drawings for concrete structural components built by the company for construction projects. He landed the job last year, shortly before graduating from Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, thanks to an encounter with High Concrete representatives during a career fair at the Lancaster-based technical college.
Smith’s experience highlights the opportunities available in the manufacturing sector for college graduates, but also serves as a reminder of how important it is for companies to make young job-seekers and educators aware of those opportunities, and what skills the positions require.
High Concrete, sister company High Steel Structures LLC and other business units of East Lampeter Township-based High Companies have been using multiple platforms to connect with students and teachers to spread the word about manufacturing jobs with their organizations.
“We want all of those tech students to know we’re here,” said Ronnie Medlock, vice president of technical services for High Steel. “We want them to know what kind of jobs we have and what we’re looking for.
In addition to career fairs, the companies this year hosted an “externship” program. More than 40 educators from area schools spent three days learning about what the firms do and the skills they seek in new employees. Both companies also welcomed high school students for tours last week as part of national Manufacturing Day events.
Steeled for success
High Steel employs 528 people, officials said. Staffing needs can vary — especially when the firm takes on a large project, such as its recent work on the new Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge project in New York state — but typically the company sees turnover of between 5 percent and 10 percent per year.
Overall, High Companies officials expect they need to hire over 1,000 people over the next five years to meet business demands.
Replacing welders and other workers requires finding people with appropriate skills and aptitudes for specialized precision tasks, Medlock explained.
“We need to make sure the community knows what we’re looking for,” he said.
This summer’s externship program gave groups of Lancaster County educators a peek at the skills required to work at High, and the array of jobs that could be filled by students from science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, majors.
The externships included observation as well as firsthand learning, with participants helping pour concrete and weld steel.
“Most of them had never welded before, and they were a little afraid of it,” Medlock said. “But once they got going, they really enjoyed it.”
One of those neophyte welders was Jill Hackman, pathways coordinator at Garden Spot High School in New Holland.
“This experience will allow me to speak intelligently with my future co-op and internship students about the process of taking a piece of steel from a raw material to a finished product,” Hackman wrote in a blog post about her externship. “I can communicate the certificates and degrees needed to achieve high priority, high demand and high paying careers within Lancaster County and Pennsylvania.”
Several representatives of the Pequea Valley School District also attended the externship, including Superintendent Erik Orndorff. Inspired by what they saw, district officials have been working with the business community on updating curricula to help students better prepare for careers in STEM fields, he said.
“We got a lot out of it. As educators, we didn’t know a lot about manufacturing,” Orndorff said.
Eyes on the future
On Manufacturing Day, Cocalico Senior High School junior Connor McAlpin and other area youths toured High Concrete’s facilities in East Cocalico Township, where architectural items, such as components for a new Statue of Liberty Museum, are manufactured.
Later, they were treated to a demonstration of HoloLens “mixed reality” technology. They donned a headset to view 3-D images of the Statue of Liberty project superimposed on their immediate surroundings.
“I think it’s really cool,” said McAlpin, who wants to become a military engineer and “design things that keep our troops safe.”
But first he hopes to attend Thaddeus Stevens.
“I am very fascinated by STEM,” McAlpin said.
So was High Concrete’s Smith.
“I like to say I’m pretty decent at math,” he said, adding that “Thaddeus Stevens was the only college I applied to.”
“I didn’t want to go to a four-year college,” Smith said. “I wanted to go to a college that I knew had a good record on job placement, where I could graduate and be making money right away.”
A good technical education is only the beginning, professionals say.
Due to the highly specialized nature of some processes and techniques used at High Steel, for example, Medlock said that even well-trained new arrivals have a lot to learn in his and other manufacturing environments. The key is that they have the basic skills and a desire to acquire more.
“They tend to be very green,” Medlock said. “But what we’re looking for is certain aptitudes and attitudes in all of our candidates.”
And, added High Companies spokesman Dave Nicholas, responsibility for improving STEM education to produce more of those candidates cannot fall solely on schools and employers.
“It’s not just us working with educators. That’s a very big part of it, but we need state institutions to get behind it so we’re all moving in the same direction,” Nicholas said.
Kathy Prime, chief learning and talent officer for the High Companies, was scheduled this week to testify about those needs before a state Senate education subcommittee on career and technical education.
According to an advance copy of her testimony, Prime planned to talk with lawmakers about the “huge imbalance in supply and demand in skills/education coming out of post-secondary institutions in Pennsylvania as compared to the demands of business,” and about High’s efforts to work with schools on addressing those needs.
One of High’s programs is designed to assist employees with continuing education. Smith is taking advantage of tuition reimbursement from the company to pursue a business management degree at Elizabethtown College. He hopes it will help him advance in his career, with eyes on becoming a project team leader.
Nicholas sees a broader societal need for more students like Smith who choose degrees that emphasize practical skills.
“We have an oversupply of graduates who are pursuing careers that are less in demand,” he said, “and an undersupply of graduates pursuing careers that are in demand.”