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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Liu

Project Brief: A Study of The State of Workforce Development in Rust Belt and Rural America

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

Project Conducted by: Olivia Liu, founder of The Subortus Project.

From March 2022 - December 2022.

Funded by Vernot-Jonas Fellowship of the Global Programs at National Cathedral School

This summer I was able to perform interviews with industrial experts and educators, travel to trade shows in Detroit and Chicago, and visit an industrial manufacturing town in southwestern Virginia. Through these activities, I gained an understanding of the existing workforce development effort in America and the administrative structure and organizations involved. I also learned about the drastic increase in domestic manufacturing activities due to the pandemic, and the pressing need for manufacturing skill training. Most importantly, they give me the opportunity to analyze various workforce development initiatives across America to identify the urgent issues in manufacturing skills training, ongoing effort to address the issues, and how my generation can expand the effort.

At the trade shows I spoke with representatives from several manufacturing companies, who told me about what challenges their companies faced in employee recruitment and retention, what skills their workers needed, what the newest manufacturing technologies were, and what career training efforts their companies were making (e.g., apprenticeships, robots for schools, internships).

I conducted virtual interviews with several workforce development experts, ranging from the heads of technical colleges to economists to the chair of a federal regional commission. To the interviewees leading or studying the manufacturing sector, I inquired, for example, about the United States’ reshoring initiative, how the growth of automation affects the workforce, where new manufacturing job opportunities are growing the fastest, and what skills the most stable and well-paying manufacturing occupations require. To interviewees working in education, I asked, for example, about how institutions cater course offerings to the local economy/employers, how higher-ed institutions partner with K-12 schools to spark youth interest in manufacturing, how curriculums constantly update to match industry workforce needs, and how various educational pathways (from six-month credentials to four-year college degrees) can be tailored to a student’s career aspirations.

One of the most intriguing insights I received from nearly all the interviewees was the need to get more youth, like myself, interested in the manufacturing sector. We are the future of the workforce, yet many high school students have an outdated or false perception of the current-day industry looks like. It’s important that companies and schools alike implement more standardized curriculums on robotics equipment, promote manufacturing-related on-the-job training, and most importantly, find ways to connect common existing youth interests to manufacturing.

One of the most intriguing insights I received from nearly all the interviewees was the need to get more youth, like myself, interested in the manufacturing sector.

On a daytrip to Martinsville, Virginia, a rural manufacturing town, I visited an industrial park, a vocational academy for high schoolers whose founder I had interviewed, and the Patrick and Henry Community College’s economic and workforce development center.

The American workforce development effort lacks a national framework to train and expand the manufacturing workforce. I contemplated why many Americans still do not have access to equitable training opportunities, even as all the institutions I researched had successfully tailored training solutions to the needs of their local communities. I concluded that not all educational, industry, and policy leaders across the country are willing to invest in or have the resources to construct a workforce development system in their communities, and the lack of a standardized guide discourages them from starting the process. However, I also observed that many individuals in communities with extensive training resources are not interested in utilizing them. Therefore, the biggest questions I have coming out of my project are: how can all communities across the United States receive financial and advisory support to provide their residents the most applicable career training, and how can community members receive the incentive to make the most of that training for the betterment of American economic growth?”

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