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STEM shortage: Creating a robust pipeline of talent

How the SME Education Foundation is tackling the manufacturing skills gap with the help of Pitsco

Published February 7, 2024
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It’s no secret that the manufacturing and engineering skills gap is being felt by businesses across the US and beyond. It’s something that the SME Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization serving the manufacturing industry, understands all too well.

“There’s not a manufacturer in this country that’s not starving for talent,” says the foundation’s vice president, Rob Luce. To address this critical need, the organization liaises with private businesses to deliver an ambitious program that’s designed to inspire, support, and prepare students for a career in these vital sectors.

Launched in 2011, the SME PRIME (Partnership Response in Manufacturing Education) program provides manufacturing equipment, an engaging curriculum plan, teacher training, and student scholarships to high schools throughout the country – and all at no extra cost. As part of the program, students can earn a range of industry-recognized credentials and qualifications that meet the needs of local manufacturers and are aligned with state educational standards.

“THE KIDS LOVE THE BOTS”

Most students get their first taste of SME PRIME in the ninth grade, marking the start of an exciting engineering and manufacturing experience. “That’s actually where Pitsco enters the scene,” explains Shelley Wooley, director of Educational Programs at the SME Education Foundation.

She particularly likes the way Pitsco Education’s products integrate with the FIRST® Robotics Competition, which many high schools use to ignite students’ interest in manufacturing and engineering. “Generally speaking, if we’re in a school with the FIRST robotics team, we are going to be putting in Pitsco products, because after it’s introduced in the ninth grade, those students will scaffold it on up.”

Following this initial introduction, students are given the opportunity to build on their manufacturing knowledge and experience over the next few years. Learners relish the chance to use state-of-the-art materials, which dial up as they progress through the higher levels of the PRIME program. Pitsco’s hands-on robotics equipment is particularly popular with students at every stage. “The kids love the bots!” says Wooley.

EVERY PROGRAM IS UNIQUE

For VP Rob Luce, being able to customize a school’s PRIME program to suit local manufacturing demand is fundamental to its success. Alongside the three core pathways of additive manufacturing, PMI metrology quality, and CAD and manufacturing, a school will follow an elective pathway that’s specifically chosen to meet the primary need of manufacturers in their area.

“Every program is unique to the needs of manufacturers in any one community,” explains Luce. “So, the program in Detroit doesn’t look like the program in Kansas City, which doesn’t look like the program in Orlando.”

Currently, the SME PRIME program serves around 9,000 students every year and is being taught in 93 schools across 23 states. However, the foundation plans to double its reach over the next five years. Ultimately, the aim is to build “a vibrant, robust pipeline of talent supporting what is probably the nation’s single most important industry,” says Luce.

And it looks like their hard work and dedication is paying off. Last year, 91 percent of seniors who were graduating out of a PRIME program said their post-graduation plans were focused on manufacturing and engineering. While the skills gap hasn’t closed just yet, with stats like these, the SME Foundation is certainly doing its bit to help turn things around.


Did you know?

A 2023 Gallup Poll indicates that students exposed to four or five technology-related topics in school are 2.6 times more likely to want a future STEM job, 2.2 times more likely to declare a college STEM major and 5.3 times more likely to be employed in a STEM role than their peers who are exposed to just one technology-related topic or none at all.

Voices of Gen Z: Perspectives on STEM Education and Careers


Read all articles in our full publication, Hands-On Heroes: CTE Stories of Innovation and Impact.

“The level of individualized support you offer our teacher is amazing. It’s like having another instructional coach on our staff. Your relationship and ability to coach with empathy is appreciated. You took time to not only see a successful launch, but ongoing implementation; that level of capacity building is needed to sustain a successful program.”

– Sharrah Pharr, PhD, director of federal programs and grants, Hays CISD, Kyle, Texas

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