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Column: Student videos push manufacturing while adults can’t get on same page

Rod Watson

The kids get it.

Students from six schools put together catchy videos to alert their peers to good-paying jobs awaiting them in area plants that are nothing like your grandfather’s factory.

Unions, community groups and workforce trainers get it.

They trumpet the jobs opening up as baby boomers retire at the same time that joblessness is rampant in large parts of Buffalo and too many city school graduates leave without the necessary skills.

Among those who don’t get it, by their assessment, are Buffalo Public Schools officials who rejected a manufacturing certification program advocates say could give city students a leg up in the job hunt. The district, however, says the program is not sanctioned by the State Education Department and offers less than the courses schools offer now.

Such disputes may be one reason there’s such a gap between available manufacturing jobs and the city residents who could benefit from them.

In a bid to close that gap by getting kids interested early on, the Northland Workforce Training Center, the Buffalo Niagara Manufacturing Alliance and Dream It Do It Western New York sponsored a "What’s So Cool About Manufacturing?" contest. Teams of middle schoolers were given video equipment and training and paired with manufacturers to produce short videos exploring what the company does and why students should consider a career in that field.

Students from the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts went "under the hood" at General Motors; LaSalle Preparatory’s team interviewed workers in lab suits, caps and masks handling chemicals and cell cultures at Thermo Fisher Scientific; and Gaskill Preparatory School’s team learned how the New York Power Authority is trying to digitize all of its operations.

After touring Hadley Exhibits, a Tapestry Charter School team member left with the feeling that after creating something on display for others to see, "you get to be proud of yourself and your family members get to be proud."

West Buffalo Charter School’s team watched kayaks come off the line while being inspired by a Confer Plastics worker who emphasized that "you can have all the machines in the world, but it starts with people, people that are skilled, people that have education, people that have goals and desires."

And Sweet Home Middle School kids interviewed an associate industrial engineering manager at Tesla who described how it takes "all different types of people to make one product that ends up going to the customer."

The footage from the plant floors illustrated that, showing not only white males, but women, blacks and Hispanics involved in the manufacturing process. It also showed them working in bright, clean, colorful environments that are a far cry from the dreary factory floors of yesteryear.

The videos should go a long way toward dispelling any misconceptions about modern manufacturing and spurring students of all stripes to take a closer look and prepare themselves.

In "American Idol" style online voting that wrapped up in April, the Performing Arts team won the viewers choice and outstanding editing awards, while LaSalle Prep won the creativity award and Sweet Home won for telling the best story.

But the real winners will be other kids who watch the videos – available on the Northland website – and ultimately manufacturers and the community, both of whom will benefit from a new generation of diverse talent to fill job openings that manufacturers are having trouble filling.

The contest focused on middle schoolers "so they can think about (manufacturing) throughout high school as a career opportunity," said Catherine L. Muth, Northlands’s senior manager for industry relations. The video will be used to recruit more schools for next year’s contest as well as at student outreach events.

Given the levels of unemployment in some part of Buffalo, it is disappointing that only one Buffalo Public School took part.

But equally disappointing to those trying to solve this problem is that the district has not agreed to offer the Certified Production Technician program, which could allow kids to "graduate and move right into" the Industrial Manufacturing Technician paid apprenticeship program, according to a report released Monday by a collaborative of union and community groups trying to solve the problem.

"Responding to the Renaissance in Manufacturing: Opportunities and Challenges to Diversify the Workforce in Buffalo" identified a variety of obstacles, including the district’s refusal to offer its kids the CPT program.

If offered to Buffalo students, "it would give them an edge to get into manufacturing," said Frank Hotchkiss, retired apprenticeship coordinator with the United Steelworkers.

"We need to reach down further into the school system," he said, adding the students could graduate with a nationally recognized certificate and that "this course would fit right into what they’re doing" at certain schools that focus on such careers.

But Hotchkiss said his efforts to get the district on board were rebuffed and he never got a satisfactory answer as to why.

School officials, however, say the CPT program is not certified by State Ed and there’s not time to offer that along with other state-certified programs.

"Our students are getting other industry level certifications that give them other required and more specific trade knowledge," Kathy Heinle, district director of career and technical education, said by email.

She added that CPT "is less hands on and more an online product for adults" and "not substantial enough" to be added as a new program on its own.

The district also notes that BOCES offers the CPT course to adults, and the University at Buffalo also offers it.

But that seems to be the point advocates are making: that district students could get it without waiting for college or going someplace else.

Maybe that impasse helps illustrate why so many manufacturing jobs are going begging while too many applicants end up in Northland without the preparation they need.

Getting everyone on the same page about education and certification might be the first step so that kids inspired by their peers’ new videos know exactly what they need to have the best chance of filling the jobs being featured.

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