How Smart Manufacturing Apprenticeships Can Give Students College Alternatives

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May 14, 2018      

Manufacturers face several technology issues around robotics, automation, and modernizing their operations, but the biggest challenge may be finding skilled workers who can maintain the smart factory of the future. One group aiming to help companies facing such shortages is Catalyst Connection, a non-profit economic development organization based in Pittsburgh whose focus includes manufacturing apprenticeships.

Petra Mitchell Catalyst Connection

Petra Mitchell, President and CEO, Catalyst Connection

Petra Mitchell, president and CEO of Catalyst Connection, said one way for manufacturers to address the skill shortage is through employer-led apprenticeship programs.

“We think that for young adults or job seekers, apprenticeship programs are a great way to have a great career, with no college debt,” she said.

Mitchell will discuss manufacturing apprenticeships and other topics during the panel “Smart Manufacturing & Robotics: How to Meet Management, Market, and Workforce Demands” at next month’s Robotics & AI Summit on June 18 in Boston. The summit, produced by Robotics Business Review, includes sessions on robotics, industrial automation, and artificial intelligence.

Manufacturing apprenticeships address worker shortage

Manufacturing apprenticeships combine on-the-job training with classroom learning, Mitchell said. In addition to giving students and other workers the opportunity for career options beyond the entry level, manufacturing apprenticeships are a way to develop a workforce with specific advanced skills that their company needs. With an expected shortfall of more than 2 million manufacturing jobs nationwide, getting employees trained or retrained is key.

Mitchell gave an anecdotal example watching a video of a woman working in an assembly plant, picking up parts, looking at them, turning them over and then putting the part in a bin.

“If they could get a robotic arm to do that job, there’s so many more things that the woman can be doing that adds more value, which could then increase her wages,” she said.

In addition to training younger students, Catalyst Connection also works with companies as they retrain workers who may be displaced by automation efforts, including robotics.

“Manufacturers, not only in our region, but across the country, are more than willing to reinvest in their employees, if their employees are willing to upgrade their skills,” Mitchell said.

Catalyst Connection has provided consulting and training services to small and midsize manufacturers in southwestern Pennsylvania for 30 years. The organization is supported by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the federally funded Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), a public-private partnership with centers in all 50 U.S. states and Puerto Rico. Catalyst provides leadership consulting, team building, and both in-person and online training sessions for manufacturers.

Creating awareness of manufacturing careers

In addition to manufacturing apprenticeships, the group helps create industry awareness aimed at younger students. For the past three years, the group has held a “What’s So Cool About Manufacturing” video contest for middle-school students in grades 6 through 8. The contest gets kids out of the classroom to visit manufacturers and produce a three-minute video that explains what makes manufacturing cool.

“The video contest is a way for students to get out of the classroom, experience a manufacturing environment first hand, and gain an appreciation for what’s happening as a potential career opportunity for them down the road,” Mitchell said.

With participation from about 200 students and more than 40 companies in the region, it’s a good community event that increases awareness about manufacturing, she added.

Getting students to think about manufacturing beyond traditional definitions is also something they’re working on, Mitchell said.

“[We’re telling students to] look beyond the four walls and think about when you work in manufacturing, you can do anything – if you want to be technical, you can be a software engineer or a programmer,” she said. “If you want to be hands on, you can run and maintain equipment. If you want to do business-related things, there’s strategy and marketing.”

Petra Mitchell will speak at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, June 18, 2018, at, as part of the panel discussion on “Smart Manufacturing & Robotics: How to Meet Management, Market and Workforce Demands.” Register here to attend the Robotics & AI Summit @ LiveWorx ’18.