Teens learn robotics as factories lack skilled workers

Wed Feb 8, 2012 4:59pm EST
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By Scott Malone

MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - At the Escuela Vieau School in downtown Milwaukee, seventh-grader Camila Garcia was building a model wind turbine in a class intended to spark interest in engineering.

"At first, I thought, 'This is for boys, it's not for me. I can't do it,'" the 13-year-old recalled. "Now I see that I can do it and that it's fun."

Her nascent interest in both learning math as well as the skills to apply it -- measuring, designing and assembly -- is a hopeful sign for manufacturers facing an unfamiliar problem as the country grapples with high unemployment.

After years of cutting workforces, executives complain they cannot find enough people with the skills needed to thrive in modern factories. Some 600,000 skilled manufacturing positions are unfilled in the United States, according to a survey by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute.

Even though 23.8 million Americans are out of work or underemployed, many people applying for manufacturing jobs are unqualified. Beyond the requisite technical skills, they lack essential cognitive skills, recruiters say.

"We're having a challenge, increasingly, finding capable people coming out of our secondary institutions, primarily high-school educated, that have the capability to work in some of our operations," said Stuart Levenick, group president at Caterpillar Inc.

It is a problem that has also caught the attention of policy makers -- the White House has launched a program co-chaired by the heads of Dow Chemical Co and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to promote the training of students in science, technology, engineering and math.

Escuela Vieau, and the other 4,200 middle and high schools in the Project Lead the Way program are part of a possible solution, teaching problem-solving and hands-on skills.   Continued...

<p>Bryan Molina a 8th grader works on his robot in the bilingual, project lead the way class at Escuela Vieau Middle School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin January 26, 2012. REUTERS/Darren Hauck</p>