by Jennifer Pontzer, Director, Career Street

We are all familiar with the notion that once we turn the calendar over to August, “back to school” becomes the mindset of many, but what does it mean to manufacturers? We have emerged from unprecedented challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, but there was an unresolved challenge before the pandemic: a shrinking workforce. And on this side of the pandemic, employers’ workforce needs are even greater.

Janet Anderson, Executive Director of Northwest PA Job Connect echoes the concern of a dwindling labor pool as referenced in “The Demographic Drought,” a report released this past May by EMSI, a labor market research firm based in Idaho. The report indicates that “Labor Force Participation Rate (LFPR), which measures people working or actively seeking work, has dropped to lows not seen since the mid-70s recession.” Recovering business, fulfilling customer obligations and contracts in a post-pandemic economy have been challenging, but they are compounded by a shrinking workforce.

It seems apparent the workforce is not growing to meet demand, so what is the solution? Where is the next generation of employees? They are going back to school. And I encourage you to follow them.

Connecting with Schools

Photo of Venango Technology Center students at Time Machine in Franklin PA for MFG Day tour
Venango Technology Center students at Time Machine in Franklin PA during a 2019 MFG Day tour. Cheryl Ferry, Operations Director, emphasized the importance of having students tour and job shadow at their facility throughout the year.

Connect with the schools in your area – all of them – at all grade levels. The Pennsylvania Department of Education requires career exploration in school. Educators are looking for opportunities to present careers to their students. You may not look at kindergartners and think about the support they will offer your business in the future but having a presence in the elementary schools provides these young people with an impression of your business. In grades K-3, students are mastering “career awareness.” They are learning what a job and a career is, and you can be an example of that. From fourth grade onward, students are studying careers. They relate what they learn to their own skills and interests. They make decisions to participate in clubs and other extra-curricular activities that shape their experience base as they develop. Again, being connected to the schools provides you an opportunity to be a part of career education and connect with the future workforce – exactly what your industry needs.

High school is an easy entry. High schools hold job fairs and look for ways their students can engage with employers. It may seem that connecting with high school students is the quickest way to the next workforce, but if high school students have not already made a connection to your industry, it is likely they will not. A key K-12 demographic is middle school. If you have a ‘Five Year Plan’ for your business, today’s eighth graders should be a part of that plan. Middle school students are curious, impressionable, and engaging. This age group should not be overlooked.

Students from Meadville Area Middle School at Mecal by Starn for What's So Cool About Manufacturing
Students from Meadville Area Middle School interviewing Bill Starn, CEO at Mecal by Starn, during a filming for the 2019/2020 ‘Whats So Cool About Manufacturing’ student video competition.

So –get involved in “back to school.” Career exploration experiences such as speakers in the classroom, worksite tours, or virtual discussions require minimum time investment, and are effective ways to help students understand your industry and careers within it. Career Street, a program serving Erie County and, thanks to a recent grant from the Northwest PA Job Connect, also serves surrounding counties – is an easy way to connect with educators and help students explore careers. You may also reach out to your school district directly to ask what programming you can engage in to make these connections. It’s a win-win – win! You are provided with opportunities to cultivate your future workforce, educators are meeting state requirements, and students are learning about careers in their community.