via Briana Adhikusuma for The Virginian-Pilot [link]

The whir of self-navigating robots, conveyor belts and large machines molding plastic equipment parts filled the air Wednesday as an entourage of suits moved past employees inspecting parts and operating machinery.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross asked questions and pointed at equipment as he toured  Stihl Inc. in Virginia Beach, the U.S. headquarters of the German business. Lorraine Wagner, vice president of operations, explained different functions and processes on the factory floor.

The secretary’s visit was part of a promotion for the White House’s Pledge to America’s Workers initiative, a five-year plan to get more companies to offer workforce training and career opportunities for high school students, post-retirement aged workers, and anyone in between.

Nearly 300 companies have signed the pledge so far. Ross, who leads the initiative with Ivanka Trump through the American Workforce Policy Advisory Board, hopes to set up programs and training to reach up to 10 million people.

The success of the plan, Ross said, will depend in part on changing the perception of manufacturing and factory-related careers.

“Parents have been brainwashed into thinking that factories are like what they were in the early 1900s – dark, dirty, smelly, dangerous places. Well they’re not.” he said.

“We have to re-educate children and their parents. Most of these kids have never been in a factory before,” he said.

In Hampton Roads, the younger workforce is leaving the region and the current workforce is aging out, which means valuable skills could be lost. Ross believes an increase in training programs and connections with local schools and students will help workforce retention for the region.

“Unfortunately, we’ve pretty well done away with (vocational training). The U.S. has the least vocational training of any OECD country,” he said, referring to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development. “That’s a horrible situation to be in. So we need initiatives like this to change it – to change the attitudes.”

That need for attitude change extends to school counselors too, Ross said. Many school counselors are evaluated on how many kids they are able to help enroll into college.

Their evaluations should include their ability to help students find good jobs, he said. “Until we change the way we evaluate guidance counselors and until we change the way we evaluate schools, we’re going to have a problem that we don’t need to have based on misconceptions.”

Hampton Roads suffers under the misconception about the amount and variety of industries here, Ross said. The region relies heavily on the defense industry, Ross said, and people often overlook what else is here. “Getting the word out” would help the region, as would building training programs in the right industries.

Ross’s visit included time with students in Stihl’s eighth annual manufacturing technology summer camp. Students will design and create two different types of fans and compete for a chance to win scholarships as part of the camp.

The camp received 61 applications – the most yet – and only 36 students were accepted. More than one-third of the participants are females.

“I was very struck as we were going on our little tour, not one single kid looked up from their work. They are soldering, or doing whatever they were doing,” Ross said. “They were not going to be distracted just because some fancy-pantsy people came around into their work area.”

Wagner said the camp, along with the company’s dual-enrollment programs with Virginia Beach schools and apprenticeship programs it has run since 1984, are part of the company’s dedication to the federal initiative. The company was expected to sign the pledge on Wednesday.

“We have an awful lot of training programs and in addition to that, we have a lot of training programs in-house, not just for technical training but also leadership training,” she said. “So I think we’ve already covered all the bases. It’s just signing up and joining in.”

Training high school students is currently the greatest interest of the companies that have signed the pledge, Ross said.

The interface between the educational system and manufacturing sector is not as robust as it really should be. It used to be. When I was a kid – I grew up in New Jersey and it was routine – you would have a school trip to a farm and then another day, to a manufacturing plant. You don’t hear about that as much anymore. We need to get back to that.”

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