Training Work Processes Workforce

Real-World Learning Develops Next-Gen Workforce

EP Editorial Staff | December 1, 2021

Working with schools and community groups to expose students to the world of manufacturing is key to developing the workforce of the future.

Educating within your community provides manufacturers opportunities to recruit and train future team members.

By Jason Green, ABB

The Manufacturing Institute (MI), Washington, (, says that U.S. manufacturers will be challenged to fill 4-million high-skill and high-tech jobs in the next decade. Some of these jobs exist today, many have not yet been created, and some will become available as current employees retire. Like many manufacturers, MI has recognized that today’s youth could be the solution if they are provided the right knowledge, skills, and motivation.

While college or military is the path for some high school students, technical careers may be more aligned to the interests and aptitudes of others. Studies done in our local communities indicate many students have the aptitude for careers in manufacturing, but most don’t have the interest.  

We believe one of our challenges is our manufacturing brick walls. No one can see what we do behind them until we open our doors to students, educators, and parents. We believe the best way to do that is to offer real-world learning opportunities that complement student classroom options. We are discovering a variety of successful methods to accomplish this.

National Partnerships

Partnerships exist on many levels. At ABB, we find huge value in relationships with national organizations such as The Manufacturing Institute, the Girl Scouts, and EdgeFactor. Each offers third-party expertise and insight; pertinent messaging across entire industries; and engaging, hands-on, STEAM-related activities and content designed specifically for K-12 students.  

In the communities in which we live and work, we’ve also found success in partnering with our local K-12 schools, colleges, Chambers of Commerce, and other businesses. Each community is different, based on its size, complexity, and manufacturing base, so no single model works. However, in ABB’s NEMA motor business, we’re starting to see best practices that can be scaled and adapted across numerous communities.  

School Partnerships

Local partnerships almost always start with school systems, whether that be a K-12 or post-secondary team. We encourage our team members to participate on school advisory boards, mentor students, communicate needed skills, and influence curriculum. We’ve also benefited from donating current equipment and providing guest speakers. This gives students hands-on opportunities to learn using the tools and processes from our plants. In exchange, we find local schools are often willing to create customized, advanced courses for existing employees using that same equipment.

An example of a successful post-secondary partnership is between our Columbus, MS, team and Eastern Mississippi Community College. EMCC recently established FlexFactor, a program designed to inform, inspire, attract, and recruit the next generation of talent into the manufacturing sector. Students are faced with a challenge they must solve through the creation of a physical solution. The Columbus ABB team supports the program by hosting tours for ninth graders in the program from Starkville High School. Being in the plant allows students to see firsthand what a manufacturing facility looks like, ask questions, and learn about manufacturing career pathways. Members of the Columbus team also serve on the FlexFactor panel. The panel provides students with a way to connect and engage with the business community while developing the skills to research a market, devise a development plan, and present their solutions to real manufacturers.

In addition to FlexFactor, the Columbus team has hired interns from the college’s CNC machining program and worked with EMCC to develop specific classes for existing ABB employees. Kim Kelly, ABB’s HR Business Partner in Columbus said, “It is important to start talking to students about career paths early. By being engaged in the community and reaching school-age students, we are teaching students and their parents about the opportunities that manufacturing has to offer.”


Another critical way to help students and their parents understand the value of manufacturing career pathways is to provide real-world learning for their teachers, counselors, and administrators. During the summer of 2020, five manufacturing companies in and around Athens, GA, partnered with four local high schools on an externship program. The program immersed educators in one of the businesses for an entire week. During that time, they received an overview of the work done by the business, shadowed various jobs, saw firsthand the skills needed in manufacturing, and became aware of the financial impact manufacturing has on the local economy. 

At the end of the week, the educators presented a summary of their experience to other members of the program. Neill Segrest, HR Business Partner for the ABB plant in Athens noted, “We offer them a perspective, so they can talk to their students about a broader range of career possibilities.” A counselor from Foothills Charter School added, “I wish I had included youth apprenticeship photos during our presentation today to let everyone else know how much ABB supports education and young people. I want to keep in touch and send some graduates your way!”

Community relationships

Sometimes the success of an entire community is based on the jobs that are available and the security they offer. One of ABB’s motor plants is in Ozark, AR, a town of approximately 3,600. They recently became part of the newly formed Education and Industry Alliance with other businesses, the Ozark Chamber of Commerce, and Arkansas Tech Univ. at Ozark. This partnership is connecting students with careers and employers with a skilled workforce.  

The partnership is visible in many ways. The team has created a virtual “I Have, I Need” space where education and industry can post information and work together to fill positions. The Chamber is leading the effort to become a work-ready community. All members will attend an upcoming college and career fair hosted by Ozark Public Schools. The Ozark ABB plant brought on a paid intern from the ATU machining program, and he became the first student from the program hired for full-time employment.

When asked why it’s important to the Ozark plant that we engage K-12 students in the manufacturing discussion, Dexter Lekwa, Plant Manager, said, “They are the next generation coming through our doors.  You hear kids want to be policemen or firefighters because those jobs are in the public light. I want manufacturing to be in that public light, where kids inspire to put their hands on and build something that affects our everyday life.”

Lekwa sees a long-term benefit of these relationships to the entire community. “From internships to community-wide food drives, everyone is pulling together, not just for workforce development but the sustainability of the community as a whole.”

Other opportunities

How can other businesses grow awareness of manufacturing careers and increase their own local talent pipeline? There are many opportunities, but Neill Segrest said it best as he explained, “Get involved and take a leadership role in the process.”

• Be visible in your community and the schools closest to your facility/business. 

• Encourage members of your team to serve on advisory boards.

• Open your doors on a regular basis to students, educators, parents, and other members of the business and educational community.

• Donate current equipment to your schools and talk to the students about how it’s used and the related jobs.

If U.S. manufacturers are serious about keeping manufacturing in our country, more of us must be engaged in opening our doors, actively telling the story, living the message, and hiring the next generation. EP

Jason Green is Vice President of Human Resources at ABB, Fort Smith, AR. Green is a Fort Smith native and attended the local public schools. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Human Resource Management from the Univ. of Arkansas, Little Rock, and an MBA from Washburn Univ., Topeka, KS.


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