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Trevor Fischer, a 23 year old enrolled at Bellingham Technical College in Bellingham, Washington, admits he never held much interest in pursuing a career in manufacturing.

He believes young people don't consider a career in manufacturing because the idea of working at a big industrial plant can be intimidating. “I personally felt this way at first,” he admits. Fischer changed his mind after completing a paid internship through the Alcoa Foundation Global Youth Internship Program that paired him with an internship near his hometown. “I also felt worried that I would make mistakes that may effect production or other important aspects of the plant. The last thing I want is to slow others down.”

Fischer isn’t alone yet the reality of not having enough qualified talent in manufacturing is concerning considering there are well-paying and sustainable jobs to be had.

In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, Why US Manufacturing is Poised for a Comeback (Maybe), the reporter discusses some of the progress being made within the manufacturing industry but doesn’t sugarcoat a challenge that continues to face employers: “U.S. manufacturers complain they can't find enough people skilled in operating or repairing sophisticated machinery, and U.S. students do poorly in international comparisons of math and science skills.”

In the meantime, youth unemployment or underemployment continues to rise at double, triple and, sometimes, greater than quadruple the rate of general unemployment in the region. In Blount County, Tennessee, youth unemployment is at 24.2 percent while the state’s is 7.1 percent; in parts of Pittsburgh, youth unemployment is between 18-25 percent while the state’s is at 5.7 percent; in Whatcom County in Washington State’s Bellingham community, it’s at 19.6 percent whereas the state’s rate is 5.6 percent.

Might internships be an option to bridge the gap between supply (unemployed youth) and demand (specific talent)? The reality is that not everyone can take advantage of unpaid internships, especially those who live in rural areas, are single parents or facing barriers to employment.

How Paid Internships Bridge the Gap Between Supply & Demand

Alcoa Foundation, in an effort to bridge the gap, feels that providing paid internships at small to medium-sized manufacturing firms to unemployed or underemployed youth in areas where youth unemployment rates are high is the answer. The non-profit organization launched a $1.25 million internship program for 500 students in 8 countries (3 of the program participants are in the USA) designed specifically to provide unemployed youth with the experience to start a successful career in manufacturing. 

A year since program’s inception last October, it is seeing success. Some of the interns placed since the program’s launch have been placed in full-time positions. Others have secured necessary skill sets or an employment history that they can use as they look for employment.

For the interns, the experience has been invaluable. In addition to learning on the shop floor, students are provided assistance with resume development, interviewing skills and other soft skills that are important in today’s workforce. They have mentors on the job and off.

Other interns have found an interest in manufacturing that didn’t exist before, even if they had a family member in the business, including Fischer, who says his career outlook in manufacturing changed since he completed his internship. “I see manufacturing in a different light now and find myself very interested in it,” he adds.

According to Fischer, the paid internship at a manufacturing facility provided him a great opportunity to try out industrial/manufacturing work, gain some experience in the field, and also allowed him the opportunity to establish rapport with one of the best employers in the area. As a result, he’s now considering applying at the company where he interned after graduation.

Stories like Fischer’s aren’t uncommon through this program and while it’s a great benefit for the interns, the manufactures have just as much to gain.

Since the internship is covered through the Alcoa Foundation program, they are able to work with interns without the expense of having them on the payroll. They can teach them specific skills they need to work in their environment.

Both the interns and hiring manufacturers can effectively test drive each other to see if there is a fit, risk-free. Seems like the perfect solution to an economic dilemma of supply and demand. Except the program has encountered some challenges, which Alcoa Foundation together with its U.S. partners (IIEBlount Partnership,Bellingham Technical College and Catalyst Connection) is currently trying to address. 

Challenges to Paid Internship Programs in Manufacturing

  • Small to medium-sized manufacturers, the ones who have the most to gain from these types of internships, sometimes find it difficult to offer internships since they’re not set up to have interns on their shop floor. As with any good intern program, someone needs to be responsible for the intern’s development and without a point person, the internship can fail. Rather than risk taking the time to mentor interns, smaller companies avoid bringing them on board.
  • Union rules sometimes prevent participants from stepping right onto the factory floor and training without receiving a company-specific orientation. In other cases, safety certification has to be completed before being allowed on the shop floor.
  • Locations of manufacturing firms are not always easily accessible to the youth who often rely on public transportation.
  • Single parents don’t have access to affordable child care.
  • Some students are in school and cannot participate in an internship during school hours.
  • Unemployed youth don’t always follow-through on their commitment. They fail to understand the importance of soft skills such as calling in when they’re not able to come in or need to come in late or not following directions or supervision well.

Despite the challenges and obstacles manufacturers and youth face, paid internships in the field of manufacturing for unemployed and underemployed seems to be meeting a need among youth and the marketplace.

For small to medium-sized manufacturers willing to open their shop doors and let the youth from their community in, it’s an opportunity to teach them skills they can use both within their manufacturing firm and beyond while also helping to reduce the unemployment rate locally.

For interns willing to get experience in the manufacturing field, it’s an opportunity to gain skills in a field that continues to grow and can provide them with sustainable and long-term work.

The Alcoa Foundation Youth Internship Program is just one step in breaking the cycle of youth unemployment and underemployment but it’s a step in the right direction.

To learn more about the program and its participants, click here.

Megy Karydes is a Communications Consultant for IIE. 


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