Monday, March 18, 2019

Open doors, open minds: Investing in our future

You might have seen me on WKBW’s newscast last week. The station was at Confer Plastics to do a story about seventh graders from West Buffalo Charter School who came to the plant to film footage of our processes and interviews of our people as a part of a contest called “What’s So Cool About Manufacturing?” which pits middle schools against one another in producing a flashy video about local factories.

The contest is a wonderful thing. It gives young men and women the chance to intimately explore a workplace on the plant floor and behind the scenes, giving them an understanding of what drives our economy and what is there for them in the future, showing them a clearer path to personal and professional success and fostering ideas about educational paths to pursue, be it college or trade school.

Kids need more of those experiences.

So do employers.   

Here is my challenge to the latter: Business owners and managers who routinely complain about the deficient workforce and the lack of available personnel need to do something other than whine. Get involved.

There is no doubt a crisis in the job market. Well-paying full-time jobs with good benefits are go unfilled with managers of blue-collar companies (factories, farms, trucking firms, the building trades) having a difficult time finding skilled workers or even apprentices interested in that line of work.

It’s an outcome of a few decades of misplaced priorities in society and education. Adults, whether in the home or in the classroom, had purposely driven kids away from the trades, thinking that such careers are demeaning and low-paying, on the path to extinction, and that college is the unquestioned key to success.

None of those beliefs are true nor have they ever been. Now, the adults who once believed them are waking up to that, especially since recent college grads find themselves crushed by debt and unable to find a good job due to an overabundance of college degrees, alleged over-qualification, and a lack of opportunity.

Teachers, counselors, policymakers and parents have done a 180 over the past half-decade or so, changing the culture that their predecessors had put into play for far too long. They are seeing the value in all work and all trades and doing what they can to promote them among today’s students.

But, after decades of society going in the other direction, it’s a tough sell and a slow one.

That’s where employers can help out.

They need to do as they do in their workplaces – get their hands dirty, get involved. They need to reach out to the schools and put themselves out there. Guidance from real world people can go a long ways in getting students interested in skilled work and settled on a career that will keep them comfortable for life.

It’s an easy and effective pursuit, one that we’ve practiced for some time at the plant and I strongly encourage other employers to follow suit. There are two simple ways that you can do this: host tours and let kids shadow.

Experiential learning is the best way to garner interest and that’s why tours are so effective. The kids can see people working, machines functioning, and goods being produced. The awesomeness of what you do every day can be an attention-grabber. It doesn’t matter if you manufacture kayaks, milk cows, or build houses – kids will eat it up. I’ve had students from fifth grade through college students go through the factory, all of them with wide eyes and keen interest.

Shadowing takes tours to another level and to make it happen it generally requires a full day and your willingness to share a lot of your time and knowledge -- and that of your coworkers – with students. We’ve done this quite a few times with students from schools like Barker and the former Niagara Catholic and with an Explorer Post we hosted on-site. They were able to choose from various career paths and observe what our folks do while hearing of the finer details of why they do it from various mentors.       

While most employers won’t directly benefit from such activities -- the chances of you recruiting someone for your company is slim (and it should not be your goal) – those kids with whom you speak will. It will give them interest, purpose, and direction.

If you are serious about the quality of our workforce, the future of our kids, and the health of our economy, partner with our local schools and open your doors and open your hearts -- doing so will open the students’ minds. Your investment of time is in an investment in the future.

From the 18 March 2019 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

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