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Advancing STEM Pathways in Manufacturing

Jenny Levy
By Jenny Levy Vice President People, Community and Environment, Hypertherm Inc.

As a U.S.-based company that designs, engineers and manufactures advanced industrial cutting systems and software, Hypertherm understands that a highly trained workforce is vital. We need a robust pipeline of machinists, manufacturing experts, engineers, and software developers if we want our business to grow and thrive.

At the same time, we are cognizant of our community. Because we are based in rural Northern New England, students don’t necessarily have access to high-tech or STEM workplaces and mentors. We want to support our community by serving as a resource.

We also know that STEM careers are growing fast, and by building a program we hope to improve the economic and career choices of our regional students. It’s altruism and it’s good for business. This made our decision to engage upcoming generations in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) an easy one.

The cornerstone of this effort is our SHAPE (Students and Hypertherm Associates Partnering for Education) for STEM program. It combines our strengths as a manufacturer with financial support from our HOPE (Hypertherm Owners’ Philanthropic Endeavors) Foundation and volunteering from our associates, who each receive 32 hours of paid community service time every year.

Research shows that the earlier a child is exposed to STEM activities, the more excited they are to learn about problem-solving and critical thinking. Early exposure also increases the likelihood of that child envisioning themselves as a scientist, engineer or developer. Our efforts include programs to expose elementary- and middle-school-aged children to STEM careers, with their opportunity for greater job growth. Our early efforts included a five-year commitment by the HOPE Foundation to improve the science curriculum available to rural schools.

Today, we have a school tour program in which students visit our facilities and cutting labs and interact with our associates. In 2017 alone, we hosted more than 600 students for educational tours, job shadows, and hands-on workshops. With HOPE Foundation grant funding, we sponsor Lego Robotics teams and other STEM-related programs. We have many associates who volunteer with these same teams as coaches or mentors. We even offer a one-week STEM camp for middle schoolers.

By supporting these programs, we hope to help young students make a more informed decision when choosing their future academic and career paths. In addition, while we want all children to have the opportunity to engage in STEM, we are aware that women are under-represented in STEM fields, particularly engineering. For this reason, we are very supportive of programs like Girls Technology Day that connect these students with female engineers here at Hypertherm.

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For Manufacturing Day 2018, Hypertherm welcomed 60+ middle school students to its manufacturing facility in Lebanon, N.H. (Provided by Hypertherm)

We expose high school students to STEM in a number of ways. We host job shadows, internships and provide mentors. We invite students to enroll in a free nine-week paid machine operator training program through the Hypertherm Technical Training Institute (HTTI). We partner with another manufacturer, Fujifilm Dimatix, and two school districts on a semester-long manufacturing and engineering program for high school seniors.

During this 18-week program, students spend five afternoons a week at each company immersed in all aspects of business. While at Fujifilm Dimatix, they follow the lifecycle of a printhead, studying the production process, material science, failure analysis engineering, testing, and design. At Hypertherm, students explore the manufacturing process from start to finish. High school students learn what it takes for a global company to bring a product to market and the many different jobs and functions involved. In addition to learning career readiness skills, students earn two credits toward graduation, including one full math and half a science credit.

We also work to engage and collaborate with college students. Our proximity to Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school, provides a conduit for collaboration and we enjoy a strong relationship with the Albert Schweitzer fellowship program, the Thayer School of Engineering and the Tuck School of Business. We also work with other colleges and universities to support graduate and undergraduate research efforts, including past engagements with the University of Minnesota and Penn State University.

In all cases, our associates lend their subject matter expertise as we engage with these budding experts. Our Lean Six Sigma black belts share business best practices and guide benchmarking conversations. The SHAPE for STEM program even caters to people unable to visit our facilities by providing a virtual tour.

This continued effort to promote the STEM message is rewarding but not without challenges. Coordinating with schools, fellow manufacturers, and the larger community takes work and time. Perseverance is key. As an example, planning for the semester-long high school program mentioned earlier spanned 18 months as we worked to develop a plan, set enrollment limits, fine tune the curriculum and ensure we at least met State of New Hampshire requirements for high school course credit. Still, it is worth the effort!

Five years after starting down this STEM pathway, we have some ideas for manufacturers interested in engaging students.

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Tyler Barsaleau, a Hypertherm engineering technician, makes adjustments to a CNC machine. (Provided by Hypertherm)

Lesson 1: Engage your entire organization. Hypertherm brought together a cross-functional team of associates to help develop our STEM pathway. We began by making STEM a focus area within our non-profit HOPE Foundation and then worked to recruit associates, including female engineers, who were passionate about STEM. This team, representing functions from workforce development, training, engineering, operations, and marketing, worked across organizational boundaries to create a highly engaging program for students.

Lesson 2: Seek outside partnerships. Look for existing groups—such as science museums, robotics leagues, manufacturing advocacy groups, and even other companies—that share your interest in STEM. A great example is Manufacturing Day, sponsored each fall by the National Association of Manufacturers. Every year, thousands of manufacturers around the U.S. open their doors to inspire the next generation of manufacturers. Consider hosting a tour or sponsoring this day as Kronos, a digital workforce management technology provider, did with Hypertherm when they provided funding to transport students to our facilities.

Also, look to public and private schools, from high schools to community colleges, to identify training gaps. By working together, you can better marry the relevant workplace skills your organization needs with existing educational resources and processes.

Lesson 3: Bring it all together. Progress can sometimes be slow, but even little things like giving a name to your STEM initiatives can make a difference. At Hypertherm, we branded our STEM programs under the SHAPE for STEM umbrella. This helped ensure the program continued to receive the visibility it deserved and didn’t get lost among the many other worthy causes we support through our HOPE Foundation.

“Our industry’s efforts to educate the future workforce, encourage STEM careers, and invite potential future employees into our plants are critical to combating the growing skills gap,” said Kylene Zenk, director of the manufacturing practice group at Kronos Inc. “Manufacturers big and small are taking the steps needed to ensure a successful and productive future by inspiring the future workforce. It’s an incredible thing to see and a meaningful mission to be a part of.”

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