How to Change Perceptions of Manufacturing

By Dennis Pierce

A Florida college launches a marketing campaign to attract students to a changed industry.

Hillsborough Community College (HCC), in Florida, is playing a big role in the push to develop more skilled workers to fill manufacturing positions in the Tampa Bay area — and a key piece of that effort involves changing perceptions of the manufacturing industry.

“If you just walked out on the street and asked anyone their views of manufacturing, what you would probably [hear] is an assembly line with workers doing very repetitive, menial tasks in a very loud, noisy, dirty environment. Those perceptions are clearly outdated,” says Ginger Clark, vice president of workforce training at the college.

“Manufacturing is now one of the most technology-driven sectors that we have in our economy. When you walk into most manufacturing facilities today, you’ll see very clean environments. You’ll see lots of technology, and a heavy reliance on robotics and computer numerical controllers. The people who are working there are doing a lot of technology-driven types of tasks, and those tasks can change from moment to moment,” Clark says.

These fundamental changes require a different set of skills, Clark says, such as solving problems, thinking critically and creatively and implementing IT skills — and also “a sense of design: understanding how things are engineered, so that if something goes wrong you can step in and do that problem-solving. You can’t do that unless you understand the design of systems.”

In response to this seismic shift, Clark explains, colleges must change people’s perceptions in order to make sure students understand that manufacturing is a more dynamic industry than they might think — and that it lends itself to higher-level skills than they might think.

The Hillsborough County workforce board recently conducted a skills-gap survey, which identified a critical need for certified production technicians and other manufacturing employees in the region.

Recognizing this need, Hillsborough County commissioners have approved $1 million in funding over the next two years for manufacturing education programs. HCC will get $322,000 of this money for its own initiatives, and another $200,000 will be used for a comprehensive marketing campaign that also involves the college.

“We’re going to bring an ad agency on board to create a new brand for manufacturing here in Tampa Bay,” says Ashley Carl, executive director of communications and creative services for the college.

Marketing manufacturing

The goal of this two-year marketing campaign is to educate students and their parents about the manufacturing industry, beginning in middle school, when students are starting to think about their future career paths.

By the time students get to high school, “if they have a negative perception of an industry, it’s very difficult to recapture them,” Carl says.

The campaign will also focus on attracting women, minorities and veterans to manufacturing careers.

HCC will use some of its $322,000 in county funding to expand a summer camp that is run for middle and high school students.

“This is a way to introduce students to robotics and the use of computers in manufacturing, so they can begin to understand that [manufacturing involves] the ability to be innovative and use technology to create things,” Clark says. “I think that speaks to a lot of middle and high school students.”

In addition, the college will add an internship component for students in its manufacturing programs.

“A lot of the approaches we’re using are about getting people up close and personal with manufacturing,” Clark says: “Taking them on-site for a tour of manufacturing facilities, or getting their hands on the equipment so they can begin to develop those problem-solving skills. There’s nothing better to raise awareness than having someone interact with the technology personally and go to visit these facilities.”

Clark cites cooperation among the college, the county workforce board, the Hillsborough Public Schools and local manufacturers as important to these efforts. “Having all of the key players at the table together is critical,” she says.

Dennis Pierce

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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