SRU students develop problem-solving skills with local manufacturers as part of state grant
Colby Myers, a Slippery Rock University senior environmental geoscience major, worked at Puppy Cake in Portersville last summer as part of an internship funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.
Nov. 15, 2022
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Technology and health care may get the headlines, but manufacturing remains a key part of the consumer economy, especially here in Pennsylvania. Despite a 37% decrease in manufacturing workers in Pennsylvania since 2000, the industry still employs nearly 10% of the state's workforce and accounts for more than 11% of the state's total economic output.
"Because of increased adoption of automation, increased use of technology and innovation in manufacturing, there has been a surge in demand for occupations which require higher technical skills," said Sunita Mondal, Slippery Rock University professor of accounting, economics and finance. "The rise in demand for manufacturing workers with enhanced technical skills has created a mismatch of employers' demand and labor supply."
Today's manufacturing jobs are about a lot more than just assembling or packaging products. They require more critical thinking, managerial and safety management know-how. Many college graduates don't receive proper training in these areas or are entering managerial roles without experience handling front-line challenges.
Recognizing this need, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development awarded SRU a grant through the state's Manufacturing PA Training-to-Career Program. As part of this program, SRU students complete internships with local manufacturing companies where they learn manufacturing industry protocols and receive safety training. Mentors challenge them to develop new methods of assessing and optimizing manufacturing processes and reducing building energy, water and waste, all of which lower operating costs and make companies more competitive in their markets.
"Given the increased demand for skilled workers in manufacturing, the programs funded by DCED are of utmost importance to make college students workforce ready," Mondal said.
The first two SRU interns in the program had paid full-time jobs with local manufacturers from June to August. Colby Myers, a senior environmental geoscience major from Slippery Rock, worked at Puppy Cake in Portersville. Puppy Cake produces cake, cookie and ice cream mixes for dogs. James Grossman, a senior industrial and systems engineering major from Polk, worked at Shearer's Foods in Waterford. Shearer's is a manufacturer and distributor of snack foods.
"Manufacturing jobs have a bad rap," said Colby Myers, a senior environmental geoscience major from Slippery Rock. "Some require advanced skills and knowledge, and there are opportunities to help businesses become more efficient and environmentally friendly."
Because of Puppy Cake's scale of production, Myers said that certain processes are not automated, meaning that mixing, cupping and lidding the product are done by hand. But that doesn't mean there are not opportunities for improvements. He worked at various stations during this internship to learn the process first-hand and then make recommendations, which might seem intimidating for a college intern, but Myers embraced the challenge.
"I could have just worked as a floor employee the whole summer, but I had to actively search out ways to improve processes and find solutions to problems," Myers said. "That was definitely a challenge, but I overcame that by talking to people and offering ideas that might help, even ones that might seem over-to-top. But every suggestion that I made was critically thought through and embraced. It wasn't like, 'Oh, some hotshot college student is here to tell us how to do things.' My opinions weren't disregarded and they respected why I was there."
Grossman gained similar experience at Shearer's Foods,but his internship included supporting an expansion in the manufactural plant, and improving its wastewater treatment operations. For example, he developed work instructions for new employees so they can transition to the wastewater plan without any major disruptions.
"This internship was a good foothold for me to get in-depth experience and understand how processes work," Grossman said. "I was able to learn and apply solutions to the real world that I would not have otherwise had the opportunity to do as a college student."
Grossman learned how to accommodate and account for regulations, such as having enough eyewash stations or ordering a cardboard baler that fits into the configuration of the work space. But he also has a greater appreciation for specifications and policies around the product itself, such as pulling a bag of potato chips off the line and into a lab every 15 minutes to measure for crispness.
"Going into this experience, I didn't know what to expect," Grossman said. "And leaving it, I see a whole different world now. I have a much deeper respect for how much thought goes into something that I thought was really simple."
The increased demand for these more skilled manufacturing workers has also driven increased wages. According to the National Association of Manufacturers, the more than 540,000 manufacturing employees in Pennsylvania, who make an average of $77,627 per year.
"An overall strong manufacturing workforce means increased productivity, which in turn leads to increased innovation, higher wage growth, and enhanced standard of living for future generations," Mondal said. "For the local economies, there is huge economic impact as stable jobs in the manufacturing sector would prompt workers to increase spending in the economy, which helps local economies grow."
More information about SRU's DCED grant is available in the news release announcing the program. SRU is seeking both local manufacturers and SRU students to participate in summer 2023 internships. For more information, contact Paul Scanlon, SRU director of sustainability, at 724.822.5306 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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