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Locally grown engineers

Middle school exposure is sweet spot for entry, according to officials with FRC East, Hyster-Yale

Published August 29, 2018
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CHERRY POINT, NC – “I had to live in Marshallberg. It was just that simple,” exclaimed Ramsey Davis, an engineer for Fleet Readiness Center East in nearby Cherry Point, NC. “I’m the 14th generation in Marshallberg. My youngsters are the 15th generation.”

Davis traces his lineage through generations of boat builders in the small coastal North Carolina town. He grew up in a boathouse, learning the ins and outs of structures.

Employees like Davis who have both advanced skills and deep local roots are immensely valuable to a region’s economy. This is particularly true in locales far from metropolitan centers, which tend to be filled with attractions and incentives that draw millennial talent.

Increasingly, educators and industry leaders are learning to work together to build schools-to- careers pipelines that develop and retain regionally tailored workforces. This is exactly the kind of crossover that North Carolina’s STEM East network was designed to foster.

But getting the fine details of the pipeline right isn’t just a networking matter; it’s also an engineering problem. No doubt this is why two regional employers with rich pools of engineering knowledge – FRC East and Hyster-Yale – have been so impactful.

STEM INVESTMENT NOW PAYS DIVIDENDS LATER

FRC East employs about 850 engineers in its mission to maintain and modify Navy and Marine Corps vertical lift aircraft. Research and Engineering Group Head Mark Meno has given much thought to ways the organization can offset attrition by hiring locally.

He has determined there is a need of about 50 engineers a year. But not just any 50. “I need 50 that want to stay here. . . . And the most likely population of 50 that want to stay here are the 50 that are already here.”

The key, FRC East suspected, was to appeal to regional students. So far, research has born this out. A survey of new hires asking what drew them to the company revealed that after internships, the second most influential factor was exposure through middle school engineering camps supported by the company years before.

“The yield we get from our investment in recruiting fairs and related efforts – even at our target engineering schools with whom we are strong employer partners – pales in comparison to what we get from our local interactions,” said Meno.

Along with engineering camps at the middle school level, FRC East prompted an arrangement in which North Carolina State University would offer a satellite engineering degree program on the campus of nearby Craven Community College. Davis is one of the program’s early graduates.

According to Meno, his company expects a significant upsurge of local applicants with engineering degrees in the next few years. This is because students originally exposed to STEM in the middle schools are at last beginning to graduate.

Additionally, the investment in tuition for local talent, resulting in an increase in retention and reduced costs to train them when they come on board, actually results in a savings of approximately $10,000 per local engineering hire when compared to a traditional candidate.

Pitsco’s STEM curriculum is part of this picture. Present in numerous middle schools throughout the STEM East region, curricula such as the STEM Expeditions® emphasize hard science knowledge through hands-on learning and real-world application. According to Meno, who has visited Pitsco labs, this approach fosters interest well.

“The point of the activities in the Pitsco way of learning seems to hit the kids and say, ‘I can do this, and this is cool.’ So now we’ve got them excited.”

THE SOFT-SKILLS ADVANTAGE

In Greenville, a bit further inland, engineering heads at forklift manufacturer Hyster-Yale were developing a similar line of thought: millennials are essential to the company’s future. The company began bringing student tours to their facility to educate them about day-to-day work processes. Company reps visited classrooms as well, both in person and through online video conferencing.

According to Wayne Washington, HR manager for the company’s engineering group, this kind of exposure has many pluses. “It benefits the child for one, because they are more educated and ready when they come out to actually work here or any organization they decide to work at. It benefits the economy because we have a more educated workforce, and that’s just a trickle-down effect for the whole. It’s an ecosystem.”

According to Washington, overcoming the silos that naturally develop in an organization is key to improving performance. The team-based approach promoted by Pitsco Expeditions emphasizes collaboration and knowledge sharing among students. These 21st-century skills are intentionally written into the design of the curricula in response to the needs described by employers. There is a growing awareness that our collective economic future depends on the cultivation of these skills.

“You have to be collaborative,” said Washington. “You have to be in a team-based setting. It’s not just me, me, me; it’s we, we, we. It’s very project driven. These soft skills have to be developed for us to survive 2020 and beyond.”

Mobile Fab Lab furthers students’ hands-on engineering experiences

FRC East has taken a multitiered approach to spreading STEM knowledge and enthusiasm among students in the region. One tool for this mission is the Fab Lab, or mobile fabrication lab. The lab, housed in a trailer that is driven from school to school, is equipped with scanners, 3-D printers, laser cutters, laptops with design software, and more. The goal was to give students the opportunity to take their school engineering projects to the next level, inspiring them to think about building prototypes.

Regional teachers were invited to tour the lab. Afterward, they created lesson plans that utilized the lab’s resources. The lab visits schools for as long as a week, and students make extensive use of it. In cases where a teacher might not have a clear vision for a project, Randall Lewis, an electrical engineer with FRC East and the manager of the Fab Lab, has created projects for students.

Teachers have been quite innovative, however. Several have used the Fab Lab in conjunction with Pitsco curricula.

One such project involved enhancing water bottle rockets. “The kids came into the lab and were able to 3-D print or laser cut fins for the rockets,” said Lewis. Pitsco CO2 dragsters also had a turn in the lab. “We used the Fab Lab to cut out the shapes on the bandsaw. . . . And then we use the drill press to drill the axle hole so we could get it perfectly straight.”

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Engineers agree: There’s no substitute for hands-on education

“I wanted [Missions] because I know how impactful STEM can be for the entire school, the entire school culture. I’m all about the whole child. It’s not just about reading or writing or math. It’s about every child has some talent somewhere; you just have to find it.”

– Jay Parker, principal, Wallace Elementary School, Wallace, North Carolina

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