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PRIME Pathways to Developing Talent

Robert Puhr
By Robert Puhr Contributing Editor, SME Media

This is a story of success-in-the-making.

While it takes place in Michigan, it is being duplicated in various forms in 22 states across the United States. The reason that it is success-in-the-making is because it is not a “one-and-done” project. At least not the way Jenny Geno and her colleagues in Saginaw are approaching it. Geno is executive director of career and technical education for Saginaw’s Intermediate School District (ISD).

With a combination of remote learning and modified in-person instruction, Saginaw County students continued to acquire manufacturing skills throughout the COVID-19 pandemic at the Saginaw Career Complex. (All images provided by the Saginaw Independent School District)

Saginaw has one of the more extensive programs following the roadmap laid out by the SME Education Foundation’s PRIME (Partnership Response In Manufacturing Education) initiative. It involves six high schools and a career center (the Saginaw Career Complex) and is highly visible to the county’s 27,000 students. It is also very much in the hearts and minds of the Saginaw Valley’s base of manufacturing companies. “Without the input, guidance, and support of these manufacturers,” said Geno, “we would be nowhere with this program.”

PRIME is designed to build tailored manufacturing and engineering programs in high schools across the country. It provides equipment, curricula, and professional development for instructors; scholarships for students; and extra-curricular activities for students and the local community alike. At present, there are 62 PRIME schools in the U.S. Local manufacturers play critical roles guiding, funding, and supporting these schools. In return, they have access to skilled candidates, many of them certified, to fill specific job openings in their plants.

The PRIME curriculum combines classroom and hands-on instruction. Here, a teacher progresses through an online Tooling U-SME training module at Delta College.

Bringing Back ‘Shop Class’

In the 1970s and 1980s, virtually every high school in the country had a shop class. Students who were so inclined would take classes in machining, welding, or other “hands-on” disciplines. These shop classes were a good “feeder source” for new hires in local plants and factories.

Then something happened.

Students were nudged toward college prep courses. Parents who had never attended college steered their kids toward a university education and the dream of a “better life” for them. It didn’t help that factories at that time bore little resemblance to the modern and safe manufacturing plants of today. Shop classes fell by the wayside.

Today, it’s clear that a better life is not necessarily guaranteed with a college degree. Graduates with skills and technical competency are very much in demand and can choose among many financially rewarding, intellectually challenging, and sustainable careers in manufacturing.

At least they can if they know about them.

“I’m a college graduate, so I’m not anti-college,” said Jim Terry, owner of PF Markey, a preeminent distributor of tooling solutions based in the Saginaw Valley. A board member of the Great Lakes Bay Manufacturing Association (GLBMA), Terry has been involved in manufacturing for over 35 years. “There is a huge talent gap in this region and the nation,” he said. “With nearly 500,000 open manufacturing positions in the U.S. at the moment, there is a tremendous opportunity for students who want to work with their hands and be around new technologies.”

Exposing young people to modern manufacturing is key to motivating them. “Give them a tour of a clean, climate-controlled plant that is stuffed full of high-tech machines—particularly a plant that employs AI, 3D printing, and Industry 4.0 systems—and their eyes pop out of their heads,” said Terry. “It’s like a video game on steroids.”

There is another gap, too, according to Terry Morse, associate professor of advanced CNC and manufacturing for nearby Delta College in University Center, Mich. “Yes, we have a skills gap,” Morse said, “but another gap, perhaps more challenging, is finding enough people interested in learning the skills. I started out as a tool-and-die maker 30 years ago, so this industry is in my blood. Young people are not as exposed to it, don’t know about it, and if they have thought at all about it, their perception is usually negative. But once they become aware of the options and the opportunities—it’s like a light bulb goes on.”

Changing the Trajectory of a Student’s Life

Turning on the light bulb in a student’s mind—and then keeping that light bright—is what the community of Saginaw is rallying around. The commitment runs deep, involving a tight partnership that includes educators, manufacturers, and government officials, all facilitated by the SME Education Foundation.

Creating awareness and developing a pipeline of skilled talent for a local community of manufacturers is what PRIME is about, according to Rob Luce, vice president of the SME Education Foundation, Southfield, Mich. PRIME is the glue in partnerships between manufacturers and educational institutions to “build out” manufacturing and engineering programs inside high schools.

Hands-on instruction is another key component of instruction in Saginaw. Here, a student operates a Haas CNC machine.

“We’ve seen our program change the trajectory of a student’s life in very positive ways,” said Luce. “Equipped with both hard and soft skills, a student can transition from a life of minimum-wage jobs to a very livable wage career with opportunities to grow.”

Key to PRIME’s success is that it is both informed and supported by local industry. “PRIME has never been off-the-shelf, out-of-the-box,” said Luce. “It is tailored to the needs of local manufacturers.” Given that the PRIME initiative is about 10 years old and has seen more than 50,000 students, there is a proven process whereby PRIME managers can assess the needs both from the donors’ and the local manufacturers’ standpoint.

Shelley Wooley is an educational program manager in the PRIME organization. She has a doctorate in education and global experience. “Students who go through the PRIME program are transformed,” she said. “They graduate with a skill set, and often industry-recognized certification, that the manufacturers in their community are in desperate need of.”

Wooley said that the SME Education Foundation is eager to expand PRIME to more locations. “We hope to work with more Title I schools (which include students from low-income families) and support diversity, equity, and inclusion through the participation of under-represented populations. In this way, we can help transform more lives.”

The PRIME program is flexible to meet local needs, relying on “pathways” to focus the curricula and the instruction. Core pathways are Metrology & Quality, Additive Manufacturing, and CAD/CAM. Wooley explained that elective pathways like Industrial Maintenance, Machining & Fabrication, Mechatronics & Robotics, and Welding are site-specific and tailored to local needs.

The deliverables that PRIME provides include new equipment (typically up to 75 percent of the budget), a curriculum plan and learning tools (in concert with Tooling U-SME), and professional development for instructors to become proficient in teaching students how to operate specific equipment or explaining specific manufacturing processes. Said Luce, “We can support virtually any teacher to become proficient. They don’t have to be a machinist or welder or programmer by background.”

In addition, PRIME provides scholarships for students who want to continue with post-secondary education; support for STEM activities outside the classroom such as summer camps, tours and robotic clubs; and funding for schools to sustain their programs after the initial period.

The Voice of Manufacturing

The process starts with a need.

“When you have a need, you can either complain about it or take action,” said Patrick Curry, president of Fullerton Tool Company Inc., a Saginaw-based manufacturer of carbide cutting tools. “My experience is that it does no good to complain, so the alternative is to do something.”

Curry, along with a few colleagues in Saginaw’s manufacturing sector, were key drivers in getting the local program off the ground. Though the group was not aware of SME PRIME when it first began its quest to fill the skills gap, the manufacturing leaders were painfully aware of the problem. “We had 11 very experienced people retire from Fullerton last year and we need to keep the pipeline full of good talent.”

The impetus for action came during a meeting of the GLBMA in 2018, Curry recalls. “One of the speakers was from SME’s Education Foundation and talked about the PRIME program,” he said. “We all agreed about the shortage of skilled labor and the lack of programs to develop those skills, and this PRIME initiative seemed like it would fit the bill.”

Andy Stewart, Saginaw REPS general manager for Nexteer Automotive, headquartered in Auburn Hills, Mich., was also on the GLBMA board and recalled the discussion and the actions following. Nexteer is a major manufacturer with a complex of six facilities and a technical center in the Saginaw area. “PRIME was new to me, but the concepts behind it were not,” Stewart said. “I’ve been involved in automotive manufacturing for over 30 years and have seen the benefits of hiring people who have the basic knowledge and skills. It was clear to me that we should represent the voice of manufacturing by identifying the skill sets required and then building a program in Saginaw.”

To get the true flavor of a PRIME program in action, Stewart, Curry, and a few others hopped in a van and drove to Wadsworth High School in north central Ohio. “It was really inspiring,” Stewart recalls. “Modern facilities, CNC machines, a robotics station, 3D printer, ultra clean. A perfect spokesperson for the voice of manufacturing to young people."

Jeremy Bockelman, director of the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center (MMTC), which provides consulting and training for manufacturers in the state, was also on the Ohio trip. His liaison with GLBMA and other manufacturing organizations, combined with witnessing what Wadsworth was able to accomplish, inspired him to want to be involved in rolling out a PRIME program in Saginaw.

Saginaw ISD students learn machining on new CNC equipment, such as this Haas TM-2P CNC milling machine.

 ‘Why Wouldn’t We Do This?’

“My first exposure to PRIME was an invitation from Patrick Curry to come to a meeting so he could introduce me to a few people,” Geno of Saginaw ISD  said. “That meeting was attended by several manufacturers and a representative from the SME Education Foundation who spoke about the PRIME program. Immediately, the manufacturers were excited about the potential. They made it clear there was a need, so my thought was, ‘why wouldn’t we do this?’”

“We were really pumped up,” Curry said. “We liked what we saw at Wadsworth and we liked the PRIME approach because we wouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel here in Saginaw. The PRIME process was proven to work. We knew what we wanted to do—now all we had to do was find a way to pay for it!”

The timing was excellent.

PRIME programs are typically funded by local manufacturers, but in Saginaw’s case, major funding comes from Michigan taxpayers. In 2018 Michigan initiated what it called the Marshall Plan for Talent to offer grants in support of partnerships between educators, employers, and other stakeholders to “transform Michigan’s talent pipeline.” Its investment fund was about $63 million. Geno wrote a grant application and applied for funding.

Local manufacturers support the Saginaw PRIME program with donations of cutting tools, blank stock materials, and other needed supplies. Here, a student in the machining program shows some of the metal stock donated by PF Markey of Saginaw, a supplier of tooling solutions.

In December 2018, Geno and her collaborators received over $1 million in grant money to establish PRIME programs at Saginaw’s high schools. The first priority, though, was to perform a “full build” of the capabilities at the Saginaw Career Complex to which all the county’s students had access.

Bockelman’s team at MMTC brought its consulting expertise to help Saginaw build out the program at the Complex. “We assessed industry needs and put forth our recommendation to build from the ground up—what equipment to acquire, what precision measurement and auxiliary items to include, and how to incorporate Industry 4.0 technology into the mix,” Bockelman said.

The other important thing that happened in 2018 was that Saginaw County passed a 10-year Career and Technical Education tax millage. The manufacturing community worked tirelessly to inform voters and support the millage. “The millage allowed us to replace old, antiquated equipment and to re-design our curriculum to be directly responsive to local needs,” Geno said.

Pivoting with COVID-19

Everything was progressing right on plan until the pandemic hit. Like all schools, Saginaw had to pivot and adapt quickly.

“We have been doing some instruction remotely, but the pieces of the program that we really want to develop need to be in-person,” Geno said. “Tooling U-SME has been a godsend because it [has] an online tool that students can access remotely.”

Bockelman concurred. “Tooling U-SME is a real effective tool for blended learning,” he said. “It is interactive and gives students the foundational knowledge to support hands-on instruction.”

The Career Complex has been open since the beginning of the year on a hybrid schedule, combining remote and in-person learning, in order to meet guidelines for social distancing. There have been rollbacks and pauses at the local high schools when outbreaks occurred.

“In terms of training and equipment installation, we are mostly on track,” Geno said. “I’ve been very impressed with the way we have been able to move forward and work through challenges.”

Geno said that by the end of the three-year grant period, all the curricula will be fully implemented, all the equipment installed, all teachers fully trained, and the PRIME process will be up and running at six high schools and the Career Complex. “There was certainly a learning curve, but everyone has been extremely cooperative,” she said. “We’ve got a really great team right now.”

Taking the First Steps

What would the team’s advice be to other communities and manufacturers considering a PRIME program?

“Go for it,” Curry said. "The SME Education Foundation has a great process and is very helpful."

Said Terry, “If a manufacturer is not currently involved in donating to, or working with, a PRIME school, it is missing out on one of the best opportunities to acquire talent and future workers.”

It is important to understand that this is a multi-year commitment. “In previous times, I’ve seen high school programs close down after a couple of years,” Morse of Delta College cautioned. “It takes a longer-term plan and a longer-term commitment.”

The program should also be grounded in realistic expectations. Since most PRIME programs are funded by the manufacturing base, manufacturers must be actively involved in initiating and providing mentoring for the program, sitting on boards and committees, and donating time.

The manufacturers agree that it is important to have a “project champion” in the educational system—the role that Geno fills in the Saginaw program. “The coordination and implementation have been outstanding,” Stewart of Nexteer said.

Geno stressed the importance of having ways to reach the “decision influencers” of young students. “Summer camps, videos, extracurricular events, plant tours, and clubs are very helpful,” Geno said. “Also, since parents and teachers are the most critical adult groups that influence a student’s career perceptions, helping them see the benefits of different manufacturing careers, and the steps needed to get there, is absolutely critical.”

According to Wooley, it is also helpful to plan for attrition of students and what career choices graduates typically make. “About one-third of students in our PRIME programs graduate each year, enabling growth of the program as new freshman students are recruited,” she said. SME Education Foundation data also show about 17 percent of graduates move on to a two-year community college and 39 percent pursue a manufacturing-related four-year degree. About 11 percent enter the workforce directly upon graduation.

For more information about the PRIME program, visit

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