Attracting Talent Amid an Ever-Growing Skills Shortage

March 28, 2019
Investing in STEM programs today will help meet tomorrow’s manufacturing needs.

It has been widely publicized that the U.S. manufacturing industry is in a state of crisis when it comes to talent. Over the next decade, an estimated 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled, with the skills gap potentially resulting in 2 million of those jobs going unfilled.

The future of manufacturing is largely in the hands of the younger generation. However, there are many reasons why young people are choosing to pursue careers in industries outside of manufacturing.

Younger generations only know the manufacturing industry from what they see in their textbooks: early photos from the Industrial Revolution era that are old, dirty, and dark. It’s no surprise that many individuals, both young and old, have developed a negative perception of what it means to work in a manufacturing career.

Other factors contributing to the shortage of skilled workforce include loss of knowledge due to experienced workers leaving the workforce, lack of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills among workers, and a gradual decline of technical education programs in public high schools.

Some companies are taking a proactive role in STEM outreach to educate the next generation about the opportunities available in manufacturing and engineering. The following is how we are addressing the STEM crisis.

Promoting STEM Careers

Students have told us that they think STEM is too difficult. They are seeking careers in different fields because they haven’t been educated on the diversity of the engineering opportunities available to them. The reality of the situation is that there is a thriving market for STEM careers.

We regularly reach out to our local communities to show them who we are and what we do. It is important to explain there are new technologies that differ from the students’ view of manufacturing. State-of-the-art injection molding software, machinery, additive manufacturing, IoT and cobots are all technologies that are being used to manufacture our products, and we have a genuine need for people to run and maintain this equipment.

We have found that our outreach has had a big impact on younger kids. There are several cases of college tours translating into jobs for students at our company—or even just general recognition of Southco later in their professional careers. We also involve engineers who have come to us through the STEM program when educating the next generation of workers. In this way, we expose students to different fields of engineering such as testing, design, manufacturing, product development, and quality. STEM isn’t all about engineering or design; for us, even our salespeople are engineers.

How Did it All Get Started?

One of our associates asked if their kids could visit us for their school’s Career Day, and it’s taken off from there. In the U.S., we now have a network of 20 associates that participate in STEM events, whether on-site at our facilities in Concordville, Pa. or Honeoye Falls, N.Y., or at local schools and universities. We have developed a special kit that enables our associates to bring product samples and branded signage to in-school events, like career fairs, so that anyone can act as an ambassador to our company.

Our efforts are also supported by our executive leadership team, allowing us to share knowledge with our global team and leverage successful activities into other regions. Even if the STEM crisis is not an issue in different parts of the world now, it will be one day. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find manufacturing and design engineers in the U.S. as well as the UK, but not so much in Western Europe or Asia just yet. Since launching our original STEM initiative in the U.S., we now have an apprenticeship program in our UK office that allows students to attend school and work at Southco at the same time and have also launched a student training program in China.

STEM Recruiting that Works

Each year, we partner with local manufacturing alliances and universities to give students the opportunity to job shadow different engineering roles. Additionally, sponsoring senior design or capstone projects by providing students with real products that are already in the market is a great way to support interest in STEM.

Through both of these programs, students receive real-world working experience. On average, we give between $40-50K each year to local STEM associations and provide five to six scholarships to a local university in the U.S. Additionally, sponsoring events such as local robotics teams can help students thrive, allowing them to gain a passion for STEM.

Companies should be fully invested in their co-op and internship opportunities. Students should have the opportunity to use their fresh prospective and newfound skills to provide value to the company and their own future career paths. Incoming co-ops and interns should have an opportunity to meet with executives and other people in the organization.

We want students to realize that they don’t have boundaries, giving them the power to take their career in the direction that inspires them the most. For example, we have former students who may have started as an engineering co-op with us, but have moved on to management, sales, marketing, or digital roles. At the end of their term, we proactively ask co-ops and job shadowers for feedback on their experiences to improve our program and better integrate into our local community.

Participation in career fairs and support from human resources and marketing teams is important. This support allows you to create branded signage and giveaway items that appeal to the younger generation’s desire to actively participate in the business. It’s also important to young professionals that their work makes a difference and has a meaningful impact.

Marketing for the younger generation is important to focus on, too. Using social media and finding ways to get their attention can have a positive response. For example, in a recent branding campaign we used “We Invented That” as a tagline, and we incorporated it into our recruiting materials; this was very well-received at career fairs, because invention is something that engineers are fascinated by at a young age and throughout their lives.

Bridging the STEM Skills Gap

To address the STEM skills gap, you must take a proactive approach to develop and engaging with existing workforces. Work toward setting development goals for associates that mentor and bring up the next generation of associates by creating more job shadowing opportunities in STEM roles, as well as other positions. Coaching and mentoring must become a priority.

Reaching out to engineering societies and clubs can be advantageous to engage with students and grow diversity in your company. The goal is to ultimately become a learning organization. Rather than hiring someone new and not dedicating the time needed to train them, we create lasting mentoring relationships. It’s important that we give people time to learn and give both associates time to do this right. When finishing a project, we review what was done well and celebrate it. We also review any pitfalls and lessons learned. This creates a continuous feedback loop that encourages personal growth while providing value to the business.

Making STEM Programs a Success

Even before we can hope to have any impact on the STEM crisis, kids need to be genuinely interested in science and technology to choose it as a career path. Enrollment in STEM careers is low, and some might argue that inspiration is key to the future of engineering. Students need to be exposed to new technologies and engineers who are making change happen, whether they see it in person, on TV, or on the internet. Companies can inspire students by getting involved in maker spaces and local clubs where they can build and create in a STEM environment. Participation with STEM-focused schools, which are becoming more common, is also a good option.

With the STEM crisis at large, many companies are asking, “What can we do to change the national trend?” The answer is to start small. We started small with career days and hosting in-house tours. These events allow us to demonstrate value, which led to us sponsoring STEM type groups and expanding to scholarship offerings. It doesn’t take a large financial investment to start up—only commitment from your team. If everyone contributes, you can tie it to development goals, and it helps the company by exposing your brand to future talent and customers. There is good payback with people we have hired and the relationships we have created through our STEM program, helping us to ensure that we have a strong foundation of engineering talent to build on for the future.

Al Frattarola is director of global engineering & technology at Southco.

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