High school students tour Ventura County manufacturing facility. (Photo Credit: Marybeth Jacobsen)
Ventura County is almost paradise, nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains just north of Los Angeles. It has traditionally been known for its agriculture, but that may be changing as the County is also home to approximately 800 manufacturing companies. And, as the regions’s industry changes, so does the need for a different type of worker.
To address the problem, the Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce started a program to encourage junior and high school students to pursue STEM careers using local companies. The Chamber’s Government Relations Manager Marybeth Jacobsen took students from the Simi Valley Unified School District on tours at local manufacturers so students can see firsthand the careers available to them right in their backyard, thus grooming homegrown talent.
The idea for the tours was born when a manufacturer came to the Chamber’s economic development meeting and said they couldn’t find skilled workers. “Then we brainstormed about how do you connect people who are interested in the manufacturing sector and the educational opportunities available and we came up with the tour,” said Jacobsen, adding the idea snowballed because both educators and industry leaders showed great interest.
One of the companies on the STEM tour is the Oxnard-based Haas Automation, Inc., the largest machine tool builder in the United States.
“We do this because we support manufacturing,” said Tavi Udrea, the company’s Director of Global Training and Development and also a member of the Workforce Investment Board of Ventura County. “We do this because it’s the company culture to get involved.”
Udrea also pointed out that there is a disconnect between the perception and the reality of manufacturing jobs. “It’s a well-paid, clean environment and STEM fits perfectly into it because in order to get into manufacturing, and in order to be successful in manufacturing, you start with STEM education.”
To prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s employment, educators are looking at different models. Dr. Pamela Castleman, the Coordinator of Curriculum and Assessment at Simi Valley Unified School District sees education evolving to better meet the needs of the local workforce.
“Career tech education is very important in our district and we’re launching 20 new career pathways,” said Castleman. “For many years we created a generation of what I call ‘bubblers,’ they can bubble a Scantron very well. But as they were getting out in the workplace, we were getting feedback from the business community that they did not have the skills for the problem solving that they needed to be effective in the job market.”
On the STEM tours, students are able to talk with both the company leaders and workers to see what is involved in a career in manufacturing. Sometimes the advice is what career pathway to pursue, other times it is advice about life skills.
Jacobsen recalled a talk one manufacturer gave to a tour: “He explains the process of hiring somebody and the cost of it and then he said to them, ‘So you come to my door and you’re wearing shorts, flip-flops and a baseball cap, don’t even bother coming in, because you’re not worth my investment.’” The group of students took that advice to heart and alerted the next group tour to dress professionally, according to Jacobsen.
Successful collaborations such as the one between the Ventura County manufacturers and the Simi Valley Unified School District will help build and maintain a strong workforce that will benefit the region’s economy. It is a step toward one of the 2015 goals of the California Economic Summit’s: A Roadmap to Shared Prosperity.
And how are the students responding to the tours? Jacobsen answered, “A hundred percent of my participants said that everybody should have the opportunity to participate in this kind of an activity.”
Update: The initial tours were hosted by the Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce. Based on the success of these types of efforts, the Chamber of Commerce Workforce Education Coalition was created and now oversees all of the workforce development efforts, including the STEM tours.