As the labor shortage continues to threaten the future of American manufacturing, industry leaders know that we must act quickly to overcome this challenge. Our businesses, livelihoods, and legacies depend on it.
I’m the third-generation owner of BTM Industries—and I don’t want to be the last. I don’t want that fate for any of my peers, either. There are so many talented makers in this country, and we must focus on building up our industry and attracting new generations to our shop floors.
But how? We can start by educating young Americans about manufacturing: it’s not the dark, dingy, and dreary job their grandfathers used to have.
Today, “manufacturing” is a big, broad brushstroke covering a vast array of diverse careers. Creative thinkers and strategists can find homes in marketing and design positions, while makers can take on welding, machining, and other hands-on roles.
Those of us already working at manufacturing facilities know how much our industry has evolved in the last few decades, but we have to invite new people inside so that they fully understand the opportunities that await them.
Manufacturing is the second-largest employment sector in McHenry County (where my Illinois shop is located), coming in behind government jobs. But nobody here has paid much attention to our industry over the years. Even nearby high schools shut down their manufacturing programs. Instead, the local focus was placed on healthcare and retail.
Then, the pandemic began and manufacturing supported our county. Soon, the community recognized that it needed to support manufacturing in return. County officials learned from manufacturing leaders that hiring had become a massive challenge, and they decided to take action.
Introducing: The Manufacturing Pathways Consortium
In 2021, a group of 60+ local manufacturing leaders, educators, and community partners came together to create an initiative aimed at introducing our county’s youths to career opportunities in the industry.
The Manufacturing Pathways Consortium of McHenry County creates an employment pipeline focused on future careers within manufacturing. We seek to increase the awareness of manufacturing career paths, help youths develop basic technical and non-technical skills, create a systematic approach to collaborative hiring, and identify non-traditional talent.
Within the consortium, we’ve developed a Rotational Internship program that exposes interns ages 16-18 to two manufacturing companies during 10 weeks of summer vacation. They have the opportunity to work for five weeks at each shop, giving them a taste of the diversity in the industry and showcasing the vast array of capabilities under that ambiguous “manufacturing” umbrella term.
All participants are paid for their time. Our consortium obtained a grant from the government, subsidizing two-thirds of the interns’ wages. They earn $15/hour, and $10/hour is paid for by the grant.
We received enough money to support 100 students every summer for the next three years. To be honest, I wasn’t sure 100 kids would apply, but I was (happily) proven wrong–we had over 200 applicants for our first cohort!
We just launched the initiative on June 6, 2022, and our greatest goal is to spark interest in the industry and let our area’s young people know that there are more manufacturing career opportunities available than they might think. We want them to see what’s possible and get them excited about making products in America.
Advice to Other Manufacturers: Engage High Schools
If your community could benefit from a program like the Manufacturing Pathways Consortium, I strongly encourage enlisting local high schools and getting educators and administrators involved from the very beginning.
We went to high schools in our area and said, “We need to shore up local workforces, and we think your high schoolers could be a huge help.” This approach quickly got school leaders on board. We were fortunate that many of our schools have newly reformed manufacturing departments and were passionate and eager to get the word out to their students. Even if that’s not the case in your community, try to find an ally at each school who could help sponsor the program.
While the Manufacturing Pathways Consortium has just begun, it’s energizing to see the community come together to support local manufacturing and take action on something that can also benefit our youths.
I hope even more manufacturers participate in the coming years so that even more of our local young people can get to know just how fulfilling a career in manufacturing can be.
Learn practical advice for filling the skills gap with modern technology, attracting top talent, and retaining your existing workforce in this roundtable discussion featuring 3 savvy shop owners.
Kyra Tillman is the owner and President of BTM Industries, an innovative, short-run production job shop providing machining and metalworking since 1963. BTM Industries takes pride in their ability to fulfill customer orders with precision work and on-time deliveries. As the team continues to grow, the values that have driven their business for the last 55+ years remain unchanged. Not content with the status quo, BTM Industries takes ongoing skill development and apprentice training seriously—as a result, they have a US Department of Labor registered apprenticeship program.