What’s So Cool About Manufacturing?

What’s So Cool About Manufacturing?

In 2011, Jack Pfunder, CEO of the Manufacturers Resource Center in the Lehigh Valley, had the idea to create a student video contest to address outdated perceptions of manufacturing by showing students and parents what happens behind the doors of their local manufacturers. Six years later, the What’s So Cool About Manufacturing contest continues to grow and spark interest from companies and educational institutions who want to share what they do and raise awareness of the value a manufacturing career offers. As we approach National Manufacturing Day on October 5, we spoke with Jack about the contest, the impact it has had on the culture surrounding manufacturing in Pennsylvania, and the key partnership between industry and educational institutions that makes building the workforce pipeline possible.

Post-Recession Image Building

In the wake of the recession, the manufacturing base in the Lehigh Valley was struggling to replenish its workforce, especially machinists. The machining program at Lehigh Career & Technical Institute (LCTI) was only at 40 percent capacity, and Bethlehem Area Vocational-Technical School (BAVTS) had been forced to give up their program due to low enrollment.

That’s when it became apparent to me: the problem wasn’t the schools. The problem was the image of manufacturing, the image of career and technical schools — the image of community colleges, even. To help that image, we needed to show what manufacturing looked like to the younger generation.

Supported by funding received by the PA Department of Community & Economic Development (DCED), the Manufacturers’ Resource Center (MRC) partnered with LCTI, the Lehigh Valley Workforce Development Board, and the DaVinci Science Center to develop the What’s So Cool About Manufacturing contest.

The contest launched in 2013 and is a regional competition. It provides middle school student teams and their teacher coach with camera equipment, software, and professional guidance as they learn to script, record, and edit video stories about local manufacturers. These teams interview employees, from the workers on the floor to those in executive roles, to highlight the nature of modern manufacturing work while answering the question, “What’s So Cool About Manufacturing?”

Shifting the Cultural Perception

We’re trying to showcase real manufacturing occupations and the level of teamwork, problem-solving, and communication involved in the day-to-day work at these companies. A lot of kids still think that manufacturing is dark, dirty, and dangerous, and we need to make sure they understand it’s automated, clean, and lightweight now. The videos have been very good at answering questions like, “I wonder what B. Braun is like inside?” or “I wonder how they make those Peeps at Just Born?” and updating parents’, teachers’, and students’ perceptions as to the nature of manufacturing work.

There’s a different culture in our schools surrounding this industry now compared to when this competition started, and we are finding more kids involved with career and technical schools and in STEM-related activities. In many schools, it’s an honor for a student to be included on a contest team, be part of an advanced program, or be interviewed to participate.

Local technical school enrollment has increased dramatically in the years since the contest started. LCTI almost doubled their STEM course enrollment in the first two years after the contest, and now they’re expanding their machine shop with 12 new machines to accommodate another 50 percent increase, getting a new welding department, and doubling their mechatronics program. BAVTS, which previously needed to discontinue their machining program, had 35 machining students in the program three years later, and now they’re putting in a new welding program.

Igniting Interest

The contest has now expanded across the state, initially through work we’ve done with the PA Department of Labor and Industry and then more recently with Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) grants through DCED. We’re aiming to expand it even further throughout Pennsylvania. Last year, we added a statewide video contest that recognized the top three videos across the state and had 1,000 kids involved. This school year, we expect to have more than 200 middle schools participating in over 75 percent of Pennsylvania counties.

We are also beginning to develop ways to keep the momentum going as these students enter high school. This year, we’re looking to get a team of previous participants of the contest, now in high school, to come back and be more involved with the middle school kids while creating a manufacturing ecosystem within the high school. We also developed a “dream team” of young manufacturing workers who go out and present seminars in middle school math and high school science classes to talk about the work they do. We’ve had some students go straight from high school to working at a manufacturer because of that exposure.

Partnering to Fill the Future Workforce Pipeline

These videos show where the emphasis should be in the educational process to make students competitive once they enter the job market. The more we get the manufacturers involved in the schools, the more they can hear directly from the companies about what they need. I’m seeing a mutually embraced partnership between industry and education starting to unfold. There’s a huge need across the board for people that understand industry and can understand what the schools and manufacturers each need, and can be that connector. That’s where my passion is right now — to be that conduit in the middle, and I think that’s happening right now across all seven of the Industrial Resource Centers (IRCs).

Many Pennsylvania manufacturers are interactively embracing outside-the-box thinking when it comes to attracting younger workers, and the IRC network is helping them think innovatively about attracting Generation Z and Millennial workers and to implement long-term affordable and sustainable strategies. These types of assistance, along with efforts like our contest and National Manufacturing Day, are helping Pennsylvania manufacturers attract, secure, and grow a future pipeline of workers.


To learn more about the What’s So Cool About Manufacturing video contest, visit their website. If you are interested in learning about the Manufacturing Industry in Pennsylvania, visit the DCED website. Continue to stay up-to-date on all Pennsylvania company news by following us on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook and by signing up for our monthly e-newsletter.

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