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Manufacturing Innovation Challenge: West Virginia High School Students Partner With Manufacturers to Solve Challenges

Virgin Hyperloop's recent announcement that construction will soon begin on its 800-acre certification center in Grant and Hardy counties has created much excitement across the Mountain StateAdditionally, the latest newsthat DST Innovations and Blue Rock Manufacturing have agreed to establish a new Morgantown-based facility for developing energy cells, with a second phase expansion for southern WV, is a promising message about forthcoming job opportunities in the state. However, these are not the only new businesses to make commitments in 2020 to planting their roots in West Virginia. As facility construction begins, it serves as a reminder that erecting educational pathways, so our workforce is ready when the doors open, is critical to long-term sustainability.

Today in West Virginia, manufacturers are already challenged to find the highly skilled workforce needed to get the job done. An outdated misconception that manufacturing involves heavy labor, in dirty and dark conditions still exists. Likewise, the stigma that "vo-tech" classes are subpar in comparison to the college preparatory curriculum has compounded the issue. The result is a poor understanding of the benefits gained in pursuing training provided by technical courses and the types of jobs available following graduation. Exacerbating the dilemma is the fallacy that manufacturing is a male-preferred industry, slicing the potential pool by nearly half. Ultimately, this leads to decreased enrollment by high school students which contributes to an employment gap with good-paying jobs remaining open for months while qualified applicants are recruited.

Explore the New Manufacturing works with educators and manufacturers to build awareness among students and their parents about the state's manufacturing sector's career advantages. Our newest initiative is the Manufacturing Innovation Challenge. The program provides a glimpse into the world of working in manufacturing, while allowing students the opportunity to develop and showcase career-ready skills. The Manufacturing Innovation Challenge partners students with local manufacturers to solve real-world challenges with real-world solutions. Utilizing a virtual format for the 2020-2021 school year, the Challenge provides stimulating problem-solving projects to give career and technical education high school students insight into how companies continuously improve their operations.

Modeled after a western Pennsylvania-based program by Catalyst Connection, the Challenge generates excitement about career opportunities in manufacturing, welding, electrical, or other technologies. Student projects, such as designing and building a new product or re-engineering an existing product, process, or system, serve as ideal activities to engage students in workforce ideas and experiences. These project-based learning efforts align with the West Virginia Department of Education's curriculum and career exploration standards. To ensure the Challenge fits the team's skillsets, teachers and company representatives brainstorm potential projects to ensure the exercise will be exciting and rewarding.

Long term, manufacturers benefit from having robust, highly skilled hiring pools, with many candidates offering precursory experience from participating in engagement programs such as Manufacturing Innovation Challenge. Partnering companies gain a greater connection with local schools, forging a talent pipeline of students entering the workforce. In the short term, because students bring fresh perspectives to solving these challenges, the proposed solutions often lead to improved productivity, quality, or other operational outcomes.

The latest news about companies planting roots here is certainly exciting for the state. As bricks and mortar go up, we need to accelerate efforts in expanding the manufacturing workforce pipeline to ensure the skilled workers needed will be available.

Manufacturing Workforce Continuum: Building a Pip...