Building Your School-To-Factory Talent Pipeline

Jamestown Plastics CEO Baker is hiring new workers from western New York program he helped start.

When Jay Baker isn’t rolling out new products, adding new customers and expanding his injection-molding business, he’s tending to the future supply of workers for his Jamestown Plastics operations in Brocton, New York, and Brownsville, Texas.

And more than that, the CEO is providing a model that is effectively addressing a common plaint among his peers in American manufacturing: How do we get kids interested in careers in our factories? There’s much to learn from his successful approach.

Jamestown Plastics CEO Jay Baker

Baker started a STEM- and manufacturing-focused “lunch club” at the Chautauqua Lake Central School in western New York for high-school students who wanted to become “makers” and now, a few years later, the program has been integrated into the local curriculum for junior-high and high-school students.

The kids are getting real-world experience in taking a concept and creating a physical product using CAD-CAM equipment and computer numerical controls (CNCs). Because of the intensity of their learning, they can earn up to 30 credit hours at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in nearby Rochester, New York, one of the best research universities in the country.

“We’ve got three individuals who went through that program and now are our employees and doing a fantastic job,” Baker told Chief Executive. “They’re going to [college] at the same time. One kid is working full-time and carrying 20 to 25 credit hours in manufacturing at the local community college, building on his skill set. We’re getting the cream of the crop at Jamestown Plastics while these kids continue their education at the same time.”

Baker is inspiring other New York manufacturers to follow suit and would like to see the lunch-club model sweep manufacturing across the country. His “aha moment” came about five years ago when he thought, “We have boys’ and girls’ clubs using our school facilities. Why not start a manufacturing club?’’ Baker, a former member of the local school board, worked with another nearby manufacturer, Randy Stuart, CEO of Stuart Tool & Die, and presented the idea to the school.

Soon, the two donated several pieces of basic metalworking equipment, which Chautauqua Lake Central installed in an old woodshop area. Kids got 40 minutes of lunch as well as a “study hall” on either side of that break, so the club met over those periods. “We wanted it in the middle of the day, rather than have it be an after-school thing where you’re fighting transportation issues,” Baker said.

About 30 kids joined the lunch club that first year and, while the equipment and guidance were provided, much of their activity was self-guided. “It was very popular for them to make fancy new bumpers for their old, beat-up pickup trucks,” he said. “Or teachers would request they make things for their classrooms. The baseball team would request bat holders for their dugouts.”

Soon, the club morphed into a curriculum offering, including the potential for participants to compile credits at Jamestown Community College as well as at RIT.

“Two years ago, the No. 1 kid in our program also was valedictorian, and he fell in love with manufacturing and now is in the engineering program at RIT,” Baker said. “He says it was this program, exposing him to manufacturing, that allowed him to figure out what he wanted to do with a career.”

Here are some tips from Baker for manufacturing leaders who might want to emulate the lunch-club approach and boost interest in manufacturing in their local schools:

Words mean things. Part of encouraging kids to join the manufacturing lunch club was working with staff at the school to avoid traditional stigmatization of the pursuit. “We had to battle the old phrase, ‘Not all kids are cut out for college,’ where the message actually is, ‘Not all kids are smart enough for college,’” Baker said.

“We tell educators and anyone else who will listen that, if you go into manufacturing plants and ask to talk with the smartest people, they’ll take you to the design tool-and-die department, because without those people, nothing in manufacturing happens. And you have nothing to make a sale with. You don’t need the HR person, the accountant. Everything has to stem from the creation of a product, and this is how it’s created.”

Talk about the financial opportunities. “One thing that really irritates me [about education] is that people say, ‘If you’re a brain surgeon, you’ll make X dollars.’ But people never talk about the small-business owner” who may be in manufacturing or trades. “You start out as an apprentice plumber, then go out on your own, and maybe you’re making a million dollars a year. Kids say, ‘Really?’”

Help address the gap in manufacturing instruction. “The biggest challenge in the public-school realm in New York State is that we don’t have the instructors who know what to instruct in manufacturing,” Baker said. “They’re not coming out of the SUNY system. And if they do, they have 15 school districts looking to hire them.”

Do it yourself. Because there’s a paucity of such programs, Baker said, manufacturing chiefs may have to start out providing all of the impetus themselves, from offering initial instruction for lunch-club programs to financing equipment for the school. There’s even money available for this purpose from the Gene Haas Foundation, which was established by Haas Automation founder Gene Haas.

“It’s not big money to get one of these things started,” Baker said. “Any school district can find the money. What you have to have is a mindset that they’re going to do it, and local manufacturers need to support them.”