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Focus on the Workforce: The Cedar Valley: Growing its Own

Britt Jungck  






By Britt Jungck
Director of Business Services and Workforce Development
Greater Cedar Valley Alliance & Chamber
Scott Slee






By Scott Slee
SME Chapter 186 Chair
Waterloo, IA 

As advanced manufacturing GDP continues to rise across the United States, and as baby boomers continue to retire in record numbers, the manufacturing industry has been the subject of frequent workforce development discussions and debates across the country.

The city of Waterloo, Iowa, is nestled in the northeast corner of the state and sits in a county with one of the highest concentrations of manufacturing companies (and jobs) in the Midwest. This mid-sized Iowa community, with a population of about 120,000, is projected to have up to 5000 skilled-trade job openings in the next five years.

So, local SME Chapter 186 knew it was time to increase its workforce development support for local companies. There are a number of ways a local chapter can have an impact, but the key for our chapter in the past few years has been the outreach to local middle and high schools, where we promote the excellent career opportunities right in our own backyard. 

October 2012 was a busy month for the Cedar Valley (the seven county area surrounding the Waterloo/Cedar Falls community). Cedar Falls High School was recognized for its efforts in promoting engineering and skilled trades to its students and was recognized for its  elite curriculum by becoming a member of SME-EF PRIME program. The PRIME program recognized the school’s effort to receive input and support for its education programs by connecting the students with field projects and local manufacturers.  

The local SME Chapter 186 has always helped support the community by active engagement with the Gateway Academy camps. The Gateway Academy camps are part of the national Project Lead the Way (PLTW) curriculum for 7th and 8th graders in the area interested in math and science. SME’s support helped increase the number of camps that could be offered for free to over 80 students at the local community college. A number of local companies have recently realized how early in life a student makes a decision about going into manufacturing, and the Gateway Academies are an excellent way to support middle school students.

Recognizing the importance of STEM education in local schools has been a passion of Chapter 186 since 1999 when it began sponsorships for students to attend robotics competitions. Since then, both monetary support and volunteer hours have been contributed to a variety of educational projects including field trips for industrial technology and PLTW students, serving terms on academic advisory boards, and managing curriculum development for high-tech classrooms, as well as locating materials and equipment necessary to adequately train students.
With the number of skilled job vacancies rising, local SME Chapter 186 in Iowa has been increasing its workforce development support to local companies.
The Greater Cedar Valley Alliance and Chamber is an economic development organization dedicated to increasing business growth and stability across the entire Cedar Valley region. Due to the high concentration of advanced manufacturing companies like John Deere, Viking Pump, Wayne Engineering, and more, team members watched the increasing demand for skilled talent rise sharply over the past five years. 

Although programs existed to expose young people to high-demand careers in the region on a regular basis, such as career fairs and job shadowing, the Alliance & Chamber recognized that many students were least familiar with the manufacturing industry above all the rest. This sparked an idea to help ensure that a large number of high school students could experience visiting a local manufacturing environment to see the advanced technology, lean organization, and expert management firsthand. This is how the idea for the National Manufacturing Day Tours was born.

On October 5th 2012, more than 1100 9th graders from the Waterloo and Cedar Falls school districts had the opportunity to tour one of nine local manufacturing facilities.  The Greater Cedar Valley Alliance & Chamber organized the event by bringing all partners to the table (the school districts, SME, transportation companies, and the manufacturers) to ensure it would be a success.  It was important for the organizers to work with the schools to make sure that all 9th grade students participated in National Manufacturing Day and not just the students already enrolled in industrial technology programs.

With the cooperation of local manufacturers, groups of 20–50 students visited in shifts, witnessing a variety of products being made on the production floors, including hydraulic pumps, garbage trucks, water fountains, and of course, tractors. Post-tests collected after the event indicated a 30% increase in students’ understanding of manufacturing operations and necessary skill sets and a 15% increase in interest in manufacturing-related careers.

Although promoting the manufacturing industry to a culture of adolescent teens will continue to be an uphill battle over the next 10 years, hands-on experience to decrease stereotypical assumptions about this prosperous, dynamic industry is a critical component of addressing the workforce gap seen in manufacturing and engineering across the country.  From the community perspective, these tours (and other programs like it) can also be a tool to engage the emerging workforce with an industry that can offer a path to a middle-class lifestyle and postsecondary training that might not otherwise be available. 

This year, the tours will be expanded to include students from at least four other school districts from surrounding counties. This broadening audience will help to inform more teachers, students, and parents about the incredible career potential in manufacturing and engineering careers.

As the numbers continue to grow, SME Chapter 186 and the Alliance & Chamber will partner with postsecondary institutions to ensure that a path of continued exploration can be developed in grades 9–12, so students are confident when they graduate that choosing a career in manufacturing and engineering technology has set them on a path for bright futures. ME


This article was first published in the September 2013 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.  Click here for PDF

Published Date : 9/1/2013

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