Each year on the first Friday of October, thousands of companies and community organizations throughout North America participate in Manufacturing Day, a collaborative effort to celebrate modern manufacturing.

By opening doors to students, educators, business people, policymakers, the media, and others, events on this special day showcase modern manufacturing in action in an effort to inspire the next generation of skilled trade workers.

Manufacturing faces a skilled labor shortage.

With 2.7 million baby boomers currently working in the manufacturing industry expected to retire by 2025, it’s essential for businesses and affinity groups, educators, and workforce development professionals to cultivate a talent pipeline through which to groom and attract qualified candidates.

For years, American manufacturers have been grappling with the disparity between the kind of talent they need to keep growing and the number of qualified candidates available to fill vacancies.

A proactive approach to creating pathways for students.

Thankfully, the manufacturing industry has taken a proactive approach to recruiting by offering apprenticeships and other training opportunities to support onboarding, and engaging with secondary Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs in public schools and community colleges. These efforts are creating pathways for students. Finding opportunities to get in front of these potential candidates early on – as early as middle school or high school, in fact – is paying off.

We think this is an effective workforce development model built on public-private partnerships, and while no single solution on its own will close these skills gaps, together, manufacturers – along with schools, communities, and policymakers – are finding viable solutions to mitigate the skills gaps over time.

Where does Kuder fit in?

Sometimes we’re asked whether the Kuder system can play a role in developing talent pipelines for specific industries, such as manufacturing. Our answer? Yes; in many ways, we can. But we’re careful to point out that our role isn’t that of a recruiter; rather, we’re a partner whose primary function is to provide valuable data and insights to – and support vital relationships between – key stakeholders.

Kuder provides insights to inform decision-making and program alignment.

Kuder is uniquely capable of fostering partnerships between educators, policymakers, economic development organizations, and other community stakeholders to develop and deploy platforms that help students gain self-awareness and build course plans while simultaneously providing educators and system sponsors access to real-time data on students’ interests and skills confidence. This data, in turn, can be used to inform curriculum decisions and align secondary programs of study with local or state economic and workforce development priorities.

Kuder data can reveal pain points in a local economy.

Let’s take a look at the Indiana Career Explorer, powered by Kuder®, (ICE), a customized career planning system sponsored by the Indiana Department of Workforce Development (DWD), in partnership with the Indiana Department of Education (DOE) and the Indiana Commission of Higher Education (CHE).

In 2011, the group selected Kuder to provide online education and career development tools and resources to students and adults throughout the state. In January 2017, we launched a new, mobile-friendly version of the ICE to incorporate additional Indiana-specific information and resources such as Indiana in-demand careers and updates to the Indiana Graduation Plan.

Identifying the need to connect students to opportunities in the skilled trades.

Using the Kuder Administrative Database Management System® (ADMS), Indiana officials recently discovered that of the 152,000 sixth- through 12th-graders who took the assessment in 2016, only about 6,300 saw the manufacturing cluster returned as one of their top three matches – roughly four percent.

The Indiana Manufacturers Association (IMA) took notice and members of its leadership are hoping to work with the DWD and Kuder to improve Indiana students’ perception of the industry – which has a dirty jobs image not only in Indiana, but nationwide – to raise students’ awareness of, and enthusiasm for, the many exciting opportunities that exist in manufacturing.

Leveraging Kuder data to advance workforce development.

Now let’s take a look at a client that found itself in a similar situation, is working fervently to turn the situation around, and is seeing results. This example also demonstrates how Kuder can play a role in advancing manufacturing at the state level.

The State of Alabama Department of Education (ALSDE) selected Kuder in 2010 to develop a comprehensive statewide online career planning system for students in grades 6 through 12. The Alabama Career Planning System, powered by Kuder® (ACPS) currently serves 710,000 active users – including students and their parents; secondary CTE teachers, counselors, career coaches, and administrators; and ALSDE officials.

The ACPS serves as an Alabama Plan 2020 Support System by reaching students early to ensure they satisfy the state’s career readiness standards, which include the mandate that they enter the ninth grade prepared and with a formal course plan that addresses their individual academic and career interest needs. In 2010, only 9.1 percent of Alabama eighth-grade students had completed a course plan. By 2016, 95.7 percent of students had completed a four-year course plan via the ACPS prior to entering the ninth grade.

Cross-sector partnerships bring results.

Alabama has aggressive education and workforce systems in place to fulfill tomorrow’s industry needs. Most notably, Alabama’s K-12 education system has received certification from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for its CTE programs. And Alabama’s school system offers co-op and apprenticeship opportunities that combine the academic courses that students will need for success in college with technical courses that they will need to prepare them for a career.

Manufacturing is one of Alabama’s fastest growing industries, and it’s projected to grow 8.74 percent by 2020. So the ALSDE has been working closely with trade associations along with state economic and workforce development agencies and employers to boost awareness of manufacturing sector careers, overcome perception issues, and promote the industry as a viable career choice for students.

The ALSDE closely monitors ACPS data to measure the success of this ambitious initiative, and here’s what they’re seeing: Alabama students’ interest in manufacturing has increased significantly in the past six years since the ACPS was implemented. In the 2012-13 school year, only 2.6 percent of students showed manufacturing as one of their top three interests; in fact, it was the second to last cluster of interest for students. Since then, however, the portion of students with manufacturing in their top three interests grew by an impressive 59% by the 2016-2017 school year. During the past five years, manufacturing has grown from being Alabama students’ 15th (second to last) cluster of interest to the ninth.

Aligning students’ interests with a local workforce needs.

Let’s look at another example of how Kuder system data can help prioritize and streamline efforts to increase awareness of (and prepare students for) high-wage, high-skill, in-demand jobs. At Alabama’s Cullman High School, a 2015 ACPS ADMS data report revealed that 60 percent of its students were interested in some form of medicine.

Knowing the health care industry is facing a shortage of workers, Cullman High worked closely with a local medical center to create a program in 2016 to target these students and give them an introduction into health care. Cullman launched an internship program the same year, and students are now being placed at about 25 local clinical sites.

We recently paid a visit to Cullman, where we observed high school seniors assisting a local elementary school nurse by completing health screenings for Head Start students. The educational benefits of this innovative program are obvious: just think of the hard skills and soft skills these students are gaining by working with pediatric patients to check their vitals. What’s more, students enrolled in the Cullman healthcare program are part of a unique local talent pipeline. They’re finding education pathways in Alabama via the ACPS, and they’re setting themselves up for successful careers in the health care industry right in their home state.

Bravo to Cullman High for tapping into the power of Kuder’s data to put together a CTE program that benefits so many stakeholders: students (in this case, both at the elementary and high school levels), Head Start program families, a local medical center, and members of the local community at large, who are the ultimate beneficiaries.

The Kuder assessments: a powerful springboard for career planning.

Now let’s take a look at how the Kuder system is designed to support both career programs and small- and large-scale, demand-driven CTE and economic development initiatives.

Career development theory tells us that effective career planning starts with finding out what the individual likes to do (interests), what the individual is good at doing (skills), and what’s important to the individual in the workplace (work values). Kuder’s three scientific assessments provide the most reliable and accurate information available to give the individual an excellent foundation on which to build education and career plans.

Students gain self-awareness.

As I mentioned earlier, one thing we’re sure to clarify with our clients is that we don’t play the role of a recruiter. The Kuder assessments don’t “place” students in specific careers or jobs. Rather, they align a student’s career interests and skills confidence to the National Career Clusters® Framework (16 career clusters and 79 career pathways) developed by Advance CTE.

Advance CTE is the longest-standing national nonprofit that represents state directors and state leaders responsible for secondary, postsecondary and adult Career Technical Education (CTE) across all 50 states and U.S. territories. The Clusters framework, which has been adopted by the U.S. Department of Education, and most state departments of education, is incorporated into the structure of the Kuder assessments to empirically align students’ top five career pathways with occupations and programs of study that warrant their serious exploration. (The Kuder system also provides other ways for students to explore career options by viewing nearly 1,000 occupations and 50,000 job titles in the U.S. Department of Labor’s O*NET database.)

We help people discover what they want be, not what they should be.

We pride ourselves in offering students with unbiased information, through and through, so Kuder assessment results aren’t presented to students in such a way that favors or promotes specific career clusters, career pathways, or occupations over others. Our vision is to help people discover and achieve what they want to be; we’re not in the business of telling people what they should be.

Quite simply, results of our career interests, skills confidence, and work values assessments reflect an individual’s responses to a series of questions. For example, in the Kuder Career Interests Assessment®, we ask students to evaluate whether they would be likely to engage in various activities, and one of the options is “Operate heavy machinery.”

Our assessments are valid and reliable.

Our assessments are steeped in nearly 80 years of research. Kuder’s research faculty, comprised of distinguished experts in the fields of career development, counseling psychology, psychometrics, and educational assessment and evaluation, has conducted ongoing psychometric research and development activities to ensure our assessments retain the highest levels of reliability and validity, with efficiency and without bias.

Unlike most instruments in the market, the Kuder assessments adhere to the latest technical standards for reliability, validity, and fairness by the Joint Committee on Test Standards (2014 and 1999).

Our assessments reveal students’ top interests and career clusters.

The Kuder ADMS provides aggregate assessment results data to reveal students’ career interest trends and rankings to our clients. Its reports show the percentage of students (within a school, district, and/or state) that are interested in each of the 16 National Career Clusters, such as Manufacturing, STEM, and Health Sciences.

We encourage Kuder system sponsors to closely monitor and leverage our data as they work with state agencies, associations, and employers to develop and tweak initiatives and awareness campaigns based on the workforce and economic development needs of their respective communities and states.

CTE programs make students career-ready.

I recently wrote an article for Advance CTE that asserts Kuder’s position as a strong CTE advocate. I wrote about how we see CTE as a key player in closing the workforce skills gap crisis, because it assists students finding that sweet spot where their interests and values intersect with industry needs and trends.

Tangible learning experiences spark student’s excitement for careers.

Frankly, schools do a disservice to students when they fail to see the value of CTE and/or encourage a “college-for-all” mindset. Sending students to college or the workforce without fully preparing them for the realities they’ll face after high school is a recipe for failure. Students need to gain self-knowledge to harness their passions and dreams, then build viable skills that can put those passions and dreams to work.

I truly believe that students’ dreams take flight when exploration turns to interaction, and when students are given the opportunity to apply what they learn – because tangible learning experiences spark sound decisions and set the stage for goal-setting and achievement.

CTE is a catalyst for economic development.

CTE programs, and I would argue most STEM programs, are especially powerful because they can capitalize on students’ interests and aspirations and spur economic development at the very same time, which is the perfect setup for a robust talent pipeline.

Clients interested in building on their CTE and STEM program success are utilizing the Kuder system to identify areas where employers’ needs coincide with students’ (a.k.a. future candidates’) skill sets and goals – and where they don’t.

Keep the conversation going – spread the word.

Are you using a Kuder system with students? Manufacturing Day is the perfect event to promote to students via your ADMS. I encourage you to use the messaging tools in the ADMS to raise students’ awareness of, and enthusiasm for, opportunities in manufacturing and other clusters.

Join the conversation about Manufacturing Day in social media. Use the hashtag #MFGday17. And don’t forget about Apprenticeship Week, which takes place November 13-17.