Advancing technology constantly keeps the working world on its toes. From the light bulb to anthropomorphic robots, technology is incorporated now into almost every aspect of everyday life. This is especially true in workforce development and how manufacturers are combating labor shortages.
Be Pro Be Proud, an initiative led by the Associated Industries of Arkansas to inspire the next generation of skilled professionals, brings the skilled workforce directly to students through the Be Pro Be Proud Mobile Workshop. The workshop is a 73-foot long trailer that travels around the state to schools and organizations for students to step inside and gain insight into skilled career paths.
The idea for the mobile workshop started when Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce/AIA, was approached with a problem from local industries about not being able to find workers qualified to do the technical and skilled jobs required.
Austin Slater, communications manager for the program, said, “The problem was becoming more and more prevalent, so he brought the issue to the attention of Be Pro Be Proud to figure out how to not only promote these careers but leave a meaningful impact on the target audience of students.
“That’s when virtual reality came into the conversation. It was decided that virtual reality was the perfect avenue not only to introduce students to these kinds of career options, but also give them an opportunity to have a hands-on experience to see if they like [the careers] and connect them to resources if it was something they wanted to pursue.”
After several years of increased interest, the program acquired funding to launch the mobile workshop. In January, it received a $1.5 million state grant for a second mobile workshop allowing the program to cover more ground.
“Be Pro Be Proud has roughly 185 schools on its waitlist right now, and we cover roughly 45 schools and 60 workshops per semester; it was just becoming impossible for us to keep up with that demand,” Slater said.
Targeting mainly students in middle school through high school, the workshop isn’t like a typical job fair. When students enter the trailer, they step inside a job site and experience the day-to-day duties of skilled workers.
“When students enter, they’re met with a large Union Pacific train simulation, a John Deere excavator and equipment operating. Students can see modified virtual-reality welders, electric lineman and materials that might not be familiar,” Slater explained. “We have an actual full brake assembly from a semi-truck and diesel tech simulations. The simulator puts up holograms that allow them to see the different parts and how they go together, and we’ll ask the students what they think they’re looking at. When students come on board, they’re stepping into an entirely new life, entirely new atmosphere around a bunch of equipment they’re not familiar with that’s being presented in a way that is high-tech and interesting.”
Eighty-two percent of Arkansas manufacturers have reported a moderate or serious shortage of skilled production workers, according to program data. In Arkansas and across the country, the skilled-labor workforce is aging and close to retirement age — leaving an even greater need for skilled professionals. The Be Pro Be Proud mobile workshop combats this labor need by sparking students’ interest in the career programs featured in the simulations.
“After each workshop, we send a survey to the teachers,” Slater said. “One of the questions asks them to detail any specific students that were impacted by our program, and 80 percent of the teachers report that at least one of their students opted to stay in school based on the experience. Students interested, especially in the lower grades, can go ahead and enroll in classes, apply for internships and jobs and attend recommended training.”
The program even partners with colleges and companies to connect them with interested students ready to jump-start a career path.
While Be Pro Be Proud is using advanced technology to develop skilled professionals in the next generation, ABB Motors and Mechanical in Fort Smith has created a digitally innovative system to increase the level of skill within its company.
Over the past year, Gary Sebo, the director of continuous improvement at ABB NEMA Motors, and his team have designed an artificial intelligence program to improve the efficiency of workers. The AI shows in real-time how a worker is performing by displaying either a green (good) or red (needs improvement) box on a screen. If a worker is in the red, the worker and supervisor can try to figure out what area needs improvement.
“This system connects people and equipment to monitor production and collect data that will help improve problems on the spot,” Sebo explained. “There is also a system called Andon that has been implemented that lets every employee have the ability to contact a support person. When a support person or supervisor is alerted through Andon, they receive the message instantaneously. These are documented and allow workers to categorize how time-sensitive their problem is.”
Sebo said that the digitalized shift in communication has improved efficiency and accountability, but it has been quite an adjustment.
“We understand how difficult change can be, so we’re really trying to get people introduced to the new systems, help them see the value and get them engaged to use the systems as a tool to help them do a better job,” Sebo said.
Myla Petree, director of manufacturing at ABB NEMA Motors, emphasized how monumental this digitalization has been for the company in developing a stronger workforce.
“The motors [NEMA] builds are quite complex, and we need people who are skilled and efficient. We’re always looking at ways to better develop our workforce into a better-trained team, and that’s where digitalization has come into play,” she said. “In the past, it may have taken a month to two months to get someone up to speed on a job, but with the tools that [Sebo] and his team have been putting in place, we’re experiencing a learning curve on how long it takes someone to learn our processes and products. We want to reduce the time from two months to two weeks, and these tools are helping us achieve that vision.”
Petree said the most important aspect of developing a workforce — current and future — is making sure that a path to digitalization addresses people’s issues in real-time.
“If [a worker] is having an issue right now, I want to make sure that our folks are being supported to solve those problems with the tools and resources they need right now. Historically, manufacturing sites would come in and production leaders would lead a discussion on the floor and ask how they could do better the next day. Instead of making things better tomorrow, we’re making this better today.”