Solving Future Labor Gaps by Engaging Students Early

Emily McGrath, Director of Workforce Development, NextFlex

While a lot of the current focus on the availability of highly skilled manufacturing technicians in the future revolves around the creation of educational pathways, NextFlex realized that wasn’t enough. NextFlex , a consortium that supports the Flexible Hybrid Electronics (FHE) manufacturing ecosystem, conducted a labor study to determine the need for new types of future talent for emerging jobs that don’t yet exist. FHE technology combines printed electronics with traditional semiconductor integrated circuits to create a new type of electronics that are thin, bendable, and wearable for applications including medical devices, printed antennas, soft robotics, and asset monitoring systems.

How do you solve a future labor gap?

The first problem isn’t that pathways don’t exist, it’s that the students aren’t aware of, or interested in, the advanced manufacturing sector to begin with. To tackle this problem, NextFlex developed FlexFactor, a project-based learning program for K-12 students. FlexFactor connects schools, colleges, and a variety of industry partners in new ways to excite students and raise awareness about the education and career pathways that lead to advanced manufacturing jobs. FlexFactor invites both higher education and industry into the classroom to engage with their future talent pool at a critical point in students’ lives.

Hands-on, student-led learning provides eye-opening experience

Project-based learning is critical to getting students excited about the field. Instead of teaching STEM subjects and entrepreneurship skills in a vacuum, project-based learning allows students to apply those skills to problems that interest them. Many students don’t care very much about subjects like materials science, but after they discover that advanced materials can enhance human performance in sports or save the lives of premature babies, they are genuinely excited to learn more. In the FlexFactor program, student teams work together to identify a meaningful real-world problem and its advanced hardware solution and then pitch the new product and its business model to a panel of professionals. Solving real-world problems is a powerful motivator that captures their attention when it’s about something that the they care deeply about. Past projects include a SIDS-prevention onesie, a hardware device that uses a miniature camera to interpret and translates sign language for non-signing people, and a skin cancer detection patch. This approach helps students become interested in STEM topics because they see how science and technology are tools that can change the world.

FlexFactor integrates easily into existing classrooms, whether that’s an English class, a biology class or a robotics class. The program builds in field trips to industry and higher education to provide students the chance to meet technicians and other industry professionals. The opportunity for first-hand experience and personal engagement is transformative for students who don’t yet know how compelling careers in the advanced manufacturing sector can be. Connecting young people to high-tech manufacturing and entrepreneurship and opening their eyes to what’s possible helps them visualize their future place in a growing industry.

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