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When Alternatives Aren't Acceptable

2020. Pandemic. Shutdowns. School closures. Last January, if someone would have suggested that a pandemic would strike, halting all in-person activities and yet the Explore Program would cap the year in a stronger position than when 2020 began, I would have said, "Of course, we will." Truly, what other options are there? Manufacturers need skilled workers, and our state's young folks need the hope that job opportunities await. Regardless of the circumstances 2020 presented, the alternative of not following through was simply not acceptable.

Thus, thanks to the leadership and support of the WVMAEF Board and our many partners, 2020 was a year of substantive growth. To begin, the Explore Team rolled out the Manufacturing Workforce Continuum, a blueprint that outlines grade level programming goals to develop a steady progression from awareness to understanding to employment in manufacturing. The Continuum aligns with WV Policy 2510 for career readiness objectives across the state, including those at the middle school level. During the last school year, Explore the New Manufacturing Program outreach extended to 1,400 West Virginia students, with an additional 950 students scheduled to participate in activities that were canceled due to Covid-19. From a retention standpoint, 86% of the manufacturers and 78% of the school participants had taken part during the previous year. The incorporation of West Virginia Career Technical Education students from the Simulated Workplace and Project Lead the Way, who served as Explore Academy lab mentors and facilitators, improved student engagement and effectiveness.

In March, when Covid-19 closed schools and shut down most of the state, the Explore Team quickly shifted to virtual platforms to offer programs such as the Assembly Line Challenge and the Virtual Scavenger Hunt. Likewise, with the What's So Cool About Manufacturing? Student Video Contests nearing completion, we pivoted to hold virtual awards ceremonies to showcase 16 student videos and announce the winners in each region. Although less than the prior year's 23,000 votes, these student teams worked hard to garner thousands of votes during their late March campaigns, and their videos continue to be used by educators across the state.

The Explore Team is honored to work with so many committed champions. High-level work deserves high-level recognition. Therefore, WVMAEF held its first Emerging Elite in Manufacturing and Outstanding Industry Educator Awards Ceremony in May, again virtually, to recognize four student and eight educator recipients for their talent and dedication. Media sources across the state shared our enthusiasm: Awardees were showcased by more than 15 news agencies, the county BOE, and social media.

In July, we hosted the WVMAEF's first Educators' Roundtable, which provided insight into designing user-friendly virtual programs for this "new normal" version of a school year. Our panel of educators continues to offer feedback about how we can adapt to meet educational needs in customizable, easy-to-use formats.

In October, in response to the unpredictable nature of Covid-19 impacted school openings, the WVMAEF launched the Manufacturing Day Virtual Labs series to continue virtual engagement, kicking off with a video by The Fiesta Tableware Company. In each of the series' ten videos, the manufacturer host supplies video footage, including employee interviews and process demonstrations. These videos are coupled with a lab activity that can be done at home or in the classroom. Middle schools across the state have used these videos to engage students in STEM and career readiness curriculums. Many thanks go to the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE), West Virginia Public Education Collaborative, West Virginia University Center for STEM Excellence, the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences, county superintendents, and other Explore champions for circulating information about the series in their communications. These videos will be utilized for several years and expand our capacity to reach students in all 55 counties.

Additionally, for high school students, the WVMAEF shifted the Manufacturing Innovation Challenge program to accommodate virtual platforms. Manufacturing Innovation Challenge will virtually connect industry and student teams for problem-solving and team building experiences. Each student team receives a challenge to solve created by a local manufacturer. The eight teams participating will present solutions to their manufacturer this spring.

As the new year unfolds, the WVMAEF's top priorities are funding diversification, Manufacturing Workforce Continuum regional overlay development, and strategic deployment of in-person programming this fall. Defining methods to diversify revenue streams and build self-sustaining financial measures to support Explore programming and expand outreach is paramount in 2021. These include pursuance of new grants, development of event sponsorships, leveraging local support for programs, and generating revenues from Scrap that both offset expenditures and provide monies local CTE's can use for equipment and consumables.

Also, a key objective is the expansion of the Manufacturing Workforce Continuum into 3-D regional overlays. This initiative to build upon the linear framework, in collaboration with WVDE, West Virginia Community Technical College System (WVCTCS), and our partners, will outline our partners in each region. These CTE, WVCTCS, RCBI, and manufacturer partners will help us illustrate which trainings, certifications, apprenticeships, etc. are available in each region. Not only will this help pinpoint needs, gap, and duplications, it will also allow us to provide educators and parents the resources needed to navigate the various training pathways available.

Lastly, the WVMAEF will retool its traditional in-person programming to meet the educational needs as school resumes in the fall. Additionally, to equip parents with resources to make informed educational decisions, we are adding opportunities for them to meet manufacturers as well as CTE and CTCS instructors. Building on the effectiveness of CTE-student engagement with local middle schools, Manufacturing Innovation Challenge teams will present their projects to area 7th and 8th grade students. The What's So Cool About Manufacturing? Student Video Contest Awards Ceremonies will feature a panel discussion by CTE and CTCS students and expand to a grand finale statewide competition. Likewise, Scrap Exhibits and the Emerging Elite in Manufacturing and Outstanding Industry Educator Awards Ceremony will showcase talent, champions, and manufacturer presence and involvement on a much grander scale.

We are all more than ready to get back to "normal." However, once the dust settles, large-scale challenges await. Educationally, statistics indicate we will have several new hurdles before us. According to the WVDE, 1/3 of students received failing grades in at least one core subject during the first nine weeks. Nearly 9,300 students are no longer enrolled in WV public schools in comparison to the prior year. Numerous students have not participated in school since March. It will take strong strategic deployment to right this path.

In 2014, thanks to its founders, the WVMAEF began forging forward toward developing strategies and uncovering solutions in closing the skills gap by building links between education and industry. It is evident that there is increased effectiveness when collaborations and partnerships involve proactive manufacturer engagement. Operationally, we must identify gaps and promulgate information, to equip students and parents with the facts and resources to make sound training and career choices based on opportunities available. However, to create change culturally and move the needle forward surrounding stigmas about technical education, industry jobs, and West Virginia as a whole is a seismic undertaking. Just because 2020 forced changes upon multiple facets of outreach, it did not provide an excuse to become complacent. As 2021 begins, it is imperative we progress ahead to create both operational and cultural changes so that young folks deliberately, not apologetically, enter the manufacturing workforce in West Virginia ready to do the job. 

Let's Get Personal About Manufacturing
Manufacturing Innovation Challenge: West Virginia ...