Rockwell Automation called for innovations from American kids ages eight through 17 years old in its “You Make It Challenge,” and three finalists will vie for the top prize in November. Louisa Wood, from Bayside, Wisconsin, suggested applying A.I. and sensors to sump pumps to cut basement flooding. Makai Samuels-Page of Atlanta designed an “anti-bully backpack” with a camera that would record in live time. And Michael Wilbourne of Roanoke, Virginia, conceived of a micro-flush toilet with an above-ground chamber to make third-world sanitation easier and cheaper.
Through their schools, the finalists all will receive a company grant to the local FIRST youth robotics program, and the winner will get a $7,500 “maker’s kit.” So while the Milwaukee-based factory-automation giant won’t be turning their inventions into products, maybe the three youngsters will consider Rockwell Automation as a potential employer someday.
“The persistent threat to the industry that we have to address is that there’s going to be a shortage of people with advanced manufacturing skills and interest in going to manufacturing companies,” says Rockwell Automation CEO Blake Moret. “We have to address it early with STEM-based education, starting when future workers are very young.”
Rockwell’s initiative is just one example of how savvy employers are getting increasingly involved with future workers at ever-younger ages, mostly through schools. So high-school trainees now are tending intravenous lines for hospital patients in north Texas and learning the basics of weapon-component manufacturing on a trailer truck in Connecticut. Middle-school kids in Delaware are about to start learning coding via a program that was started for college students. And elementary-school children in northern Indiana are being regaled with the wonders of working in the region’s many recreational-vehicle factories.
The employers involved are trying to address their acute labor needs as well as giving back to their communities, with a strategy that fits well when school funding is tight in many places, vocational education is coming into vogue, and the value of a college education increasingly is questioned. Going far beyond traditional measures such as raising funds for schools, serving on advisory boards, providing mentors and supplying some equipment, these companies are charging into local schools with their own curricula, personnel, hardware, soft- ware and an overall agenda for shaping the educational institutions—and the graduates they put out—more to their liking.
“The only way to solve all these issues and a shortage of talent is to dig deeper into the education system, not only to provide college students with some additional skills before they enter the workforce, but also at the high-school level to introduce some different types of professions,” says Martin Fiore, tax managing partner of the U.S. East region of Ernst & Young.
The consulting firm farms out staffers who help teach high-school classes with engineers and other professionals. “Right now, most high school kids have no idea what our company does,” Fiore says, “and, if they do, they have no idea of what types of skills are needed.”
Such efforts are helping kids adjust to their own new worlds, as well. “High school is the new ‘college,’ and middle school is the new ‘high school,’” says Cheryl Aquadro, K-12 vertical-market director for Johnson Controls. “Middle-school students now are being called upon to start making plans and decisions to be life-ready, not just college and career-ready.”
The Glendale, Wisconsin-based leader in commercial HVAC installation sponsors summer STEM camps for middle-schoolers. Company staffers help them apply technologies to their interests. One would-be young fashion designer, for example, fabricated wardrobe accessories, inserted battery-powered light sticks in them and then directed a runway show for fellow campers.
In North Richland Hills, Texas, the Birdville Center of Technology and Advanced Learning is producing a growing vein of professionally prepared high-school students and presumptive future employees. The $17 million campus churned out nearly 2,200 skill-certified graduates in 2018, up from about 1,600 in 2017 and about 500 in the first class after the school opened in 2009.
American Airlines buys tools for the kids enrolled in the aircraft-mechanic sequence there. Bell Helicopter finances a program in drone piloting and sponsors a drone-building competition. Medical City, a local hospital, hires about 130 interns from Birdville each year. And Gulf States Toyota recently bought a 2019 Corolla for the school so that auto-mechanic students could work on the vehicle while the company scouts the class for candidates for a two-year post-secondary training program offered by the automaker.
“We can help Birdville supply a higher quality of technician into the Toyota program and into dealerships as well,” says Toby Gustavus, workforce-development consultant for the Houston-based outfit that distributes cars across five Southern states to 158 dealerships that depend on more than 3,000 service technicians.
Metova helped develop a new computer-science course that is now required by the state of Arkansas as part of each high school’s core curriculum. The Franklin, Tennessee-based application-software company also hosts small groups of students at its offices in Little Rock, Arkansas, to see what it’s like to program. Metova ends up hiring interns as early as 11th grade.
“At first, it can be a little overwhelming to kids, but once they see it in action, it removes all the mystery,” says Metova CEO Josh Smith. “They start out fearing that they can’t find a job close to home, but then they realize we’re here, and we do work for cool companies like Dropbox, and then they know they don’t have to go to the coasts to work on cutting-edge stuff.”
Ariens Co. has been a pioneer in deep school involvement. In 2007, a science teacher brought the idea of building a STEM education center to Dan Ariens, CEO of the major lawn-equipment maker based in Brillion, Wisconsin. The company employs about 1,000 people in the town of about 3,000 people. Ariens built such a center at the local high school and then, three years ago, helped open another center in the town’s elementary school.
Some companies capitalize on commercial relationships with schools. Ameresco, a provider of green-energy systems to schools and other large buildings, has supplied a curriculum and instructional “solar carts” to two schools in Hamilton, Indiana, to help teach about renewable resources. The Farmington Hills, Michigan-based company gets to dangle future-career possibilities in front of hundreds of impressionable young minds, engaging them with exercises such as calculating the output of the solar-energy panels that power their schools, based on the position of the sun.
“When they graduate, many of these kids will want to come back and work for us,” says Ameresco CEO George Sakellaris. “And they can be productive right away, especially if we put them through our co-op program.”
Of course, many companies continue to focus on involvement in the lowest part of the labor funnel: colleges and universities. In 2017, Ernst & Young, for example, piloted a program it called Day One Ready, establishing a curriculum at the University of Dayton that helped equip students with skills for starting with the firm. In just a year, the company nearly tripled the number of new graduates that it hired from Dayton, to about 40.
“We felt universities were teaching a lot of classes for getting a degree and for under- standing how to make good judgment calls, but not in certain skills that would advance individuals’ careers right away when they headed into an organization,” Fiore explains.
Here are some tips for partnering with schools:
Press the envelope: Some new-era school administrators can move as nimbly as entrepreneurs. Ernst & Young, for example, wanted to get Day One Ready going quickly after conception—and found the University of Dayton very willing. “We were very surprised because they were very agile,” Fiore says. “We had our first whiteboard session in May, and we had the program up and running by September.”
Respect the classroom: Schools still build a certain sanctuary around the educational process, and employers should heed those boundaries. “You have to integrate and collaborate with them when you’re dealing with students and their time during school hours,” says Nick Lambrow, regional president of the Delaware region for Buffalo, New York-based M&T Bank, which is developing a coding academy for middle-school students in Wilmington, Delaware.
Focus on instructors: They are key to converting the vision behind a corporate partnership effort to results in the local classroom. Scope them out. “Establish relationships with them, even go to conferences of vocational teachers,” advises Gustavus.
Gamify everything: Turning curricula and individual lessons into “gamified” activities is the surest way to engage Generation Z. Goodwin College in Connecticut, for example, has equipped a trailer with a mobile manufacturing lab that familiarize kids with table-top CNC machines, 3D printers and measuring devices that are typical in the area’s defense-equipment plants. Instructors ask students to estimate the number of ball bearings in a plastic cup, then show them to how to figure it out quickly: take one out, weigh it, then weigh the cup. “They can see that math works for them,” says Gary Minor, senior director of college relations for the East Hartford, Connecticut school.
Start early: Thor Industries goes to kids as young as fifth grade in schools around its Elkhart, Indiana, headquarters with a road- show that includes building Lego versions of its RVs and hearing a pitch from a local TV news anchor. “We let them know we have line people and sales people and engineers and accountants,” says Thor CEO Bob Martin. “That they don’t have to leave Elkhart.”
Stay committed: “This is not a quick-turn deal,” Smith says of partnerships with schools. “You must focus on it and have a plan. Make sure you allow people to dedicate time to it. It takes years. But we are producing qualified people that we can hire now.”
Spread the benefits: Some companies invest with little hope of hiring the output of their largesse. Pratt & Whitney, for instance, helps fund high-school trips for the Good- win mobile lab. “It only helps the many supplier manufacturers that support Pratt & Whitney,” Minor explains. “But they’re the ones that need the workers.”
Take a broad view: Metova last year launched what it called a Cyber Range cybersecurity curriculum at the University of Central Arkansas even though the company already had sold its cybersecurity arm. “Anything that is good for the state is good for our company and will have a growing economic-development impact, and these growing companies will have needs outside of cyber,” Smith says.