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Bridging the Skills Chasm by Highlighting Stories of Alternate Career Paths

The most effective way to bridge the skills chasm could be to educate teachers, mentors, parents and students on how far the industry has come.

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Engineering Week takes place the week of February 21st and is celebrated in many unique ways by countless groups, organizations, and schools nationwide. The goal is the same regardless of who’s celebrating and how; to break down the stigma surrounding industrial careers and show the true face of modern engineering and manufacturing.

With workforce challenges amongst the most prevalent issues facing the manufacturing industry today, solutions need to be developed. The most effective way to bridge the skills chasm is to educate teachers, mentors, parents, and students on how far the industry has come. Engineering Week is the perfect excuse for the industry to come together and share the facts with the public while at the same time inspiring the next generation of industry leaders.

The New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program, Inc. (NJMEP) is taking a creative approach to Engineering Week. An interactive and engaging all-day event will be taking place at their South Jersey training center in Bellmawr, New Jersey, where school administrators, students, and manufacturing leaders are all invited to present, educate, and get hands-on with innovative training technologies.

This is only part of how NJMEP is helping to spread awareness about the value of a career in the manufacturing space. A series of articles sharing real-world experiences from people who experienced the industry first-hand will be shared to help educate those that might not know about all the opportunities that exist.

Mike Womack, NJMEP Marketing & Communications Manager recently sat down with Mike Remshifski, Pro-Action Education Network (PEN) Project Manager to gain some honest insight into how a young adult views manufacturing.

Remshifski is a 27 year old that didn’t take a conventional educational and career path. He went to vocational high school and, following high school, explored a career across various industrial fields. He worked for a company that sold and assembled snowplows, aided in the construction of custom-built dust suppression trucks, and even worked for a high-end automotive restoration shop and car detailing business.

While gaining invaluable life and work experience during the day, he attended the County College of Morris at night where he earned a degree in Business Administration. After completing his Associate's program, he enrolled in Kean University’s Supply Chain Management program to gain an even deeper understanding of the manufacturing industry as a whole. This path eventually brought him to NJMEP where he now plays an active role in enacting programs that provide credentialling opportunities to youth and works with high schools to educate students about the careers available in today’s modern manufacturing industry.

Remshifski’s story is a testament to the fact that higher education is not written off once an individual enters the workforce. There is no “correct” path. Going to work immediately after high school provides the chance to gain work experience and potentially peruse certifications and higher education without needing to take on copious amounts of debt. 

Mike Womack: How did your career path differ from some of your friends?

Mike Remshifski: Most of my friends went to college post-high school and that became their sole focus. Most of my day was focused on whatever role I was working at the time, with my college studies coming into play at night. 

I wanted to attend school but affording my classes was difficult, so I had to balance working mornings with my school commitments taking place at night for several years. Working first allowed me to offset some of my student debt while I also gained real-world experience. Instead of entering the real world buried in debt, I was able to start my life with a set of skills that generated income and set me up for the future.  

MW: Was there any pushback from teachers, counselors, parents, or any other people of influence? 

MR: Within my immediate school circle there was a lot of pressure toward higher education, specifically about college. Most teachers praise the benefits of going to college and that was the main focal point of what you should do when you're done with high school. 

I’m very fortunate that my parents were quite open-minded. My father is a diesel mechanic and he’s been in that trade for about 35 years. We have close friends in my family's circle that work as landscapers, construction workers, and in other forms of manual labor/ skilled trades. The understanding that you can make a meaningful career, especially if you want to be a business owner, looking toward the trades is great. So, I didn’t have any pushback at home from my parents. But I didn’t feel that anything other than college was a door my guidance counselor was really prepared to open for me. My counselors had a lack of knowledge of apprenticeship tracks and other opportunities.  

MW: You were in a unique situation to have a deeper understanding of industrial work prior to graduation. Can you share some ways you got hands-on during your time in school?

MR: I actually got to get my feet and hands wet in the waters of machinery, through FIRST robotics. I was in the robotics club at my high school and everything we did for our robot was self-made and built, in-house by our team of high school students. If we needed a set of gears, we would use a drill press or a Bridgeport and manually make it. We had a Bridgeport from the late ’40s that was the backbone of our team. We did everything in-house. 

That hands-on foundation really led me to look at going to college for engineering and how I can become a creator and a designer. 

MW: When you graduated high school and started working, did your impression of Manufacturing/STEM change?

MR: Entering the “real world” made me realize I only knew a very, very small portion of the entire industry. The work I was doing for what I thought was a big company, was just a small ripple in the ocean of what was going on here (within Manufacturing). It absolutely excited me without question.

Seeing and learning the work within every individual and company I engaged with was fascinating. Learning a little background to what they do and so forth inspired me to better understand the bigger picture. My curiosity through this exposure at work grew, compelling me to try and learn everything I could regarding mechanical engineering, architectural design, and the ins and outs of our supply chain. The curiosity just keeps growing. 

MW: When did you first decide to explore higher education?

MR: Post high school and while out in the world working, I entered an associate's program for mechanical engineering, and I did that while working for the Snowplow group. I was in school for three semesters working towards the end goal of becoming an engineer. It got to a point where I realized the deep level of math I was working within would be reflective of what my daily work experience might be.

I entered school with the thought this (program) was going to be a little bit more hands-on, leaning off organic creativity. I said, let’s take a pause. I left school and started working full-time. I did that for a few years and then decided to go back to school several years later. I looked toward supply chain management to get what I wanted out of engineering while also gaining a deeper understanding of the entire industry.

Here at NJMEP, it has been phenomenal to have that background because I can engage in industry-specific conversations, while fully understanding certain work processes that we offer - with all pieces of my background coming together, it was a great decision. The need for real training, specifically in lean is something that nearly every company needs and there isn’t a way to articulate it to everyone. But having that time, working on a shop floor, working in a different trade, it really highlights the value of the training that is so often overlooked by local manufacturers. 

MW: Were you happy with your decision to work first, then explore additional education?

MR: By sitting back and letting different forms of work come in that led to the next level, that’s where I wanted to be. I think seeing that process is healthy. It let me slowly expose myself to what type of environment I want to work in. What type of people do I work best around and where does my mental health operate best at? 

I was able to grow where a lot of my friends didn’t until they were 24 and finished school. I think I got a really big leg up on that and then by going back to school with some of that knowledge, I could sit in class, and go, “This subject will help me better understand, X, Y, Z.” It helped me connect the dots and operate at a higher level of seriousness.

It’s quite wild to sit back and think that we push all these 18-year-olds, millions of young people into thinking they need to make a choice immediately and that choice is often wrong, and that misstep comes with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. 

MW: What are you doing in your current role to support the industry, and have you had a chance to share your story with students and young adults?

MR: Right now, I’m helping build and support all programs within the Pro-Action Educational Network. We have a focus on working with the youth population currently  to provide apprenticeship opportunities for those interested in exploring a career path within manufacturing. I can take all my life and career experiences and reference when connecting with educators, students, and manufacturers. 

I recently had a fantastic opportunity to go back to my high school and share my experience at the first robotics event that NJMEP sponsored in late November. One of the teams in attendance was Roxbury’s Robotics Team that I actually helped start in 2011. Seeing some of the young people there, both within Roxbury’s Team and other groups, I was able to go and ask people, “Are you enjoying what you do in robotics?”

I shared with them that they can turn this into a career that is ever expanding in depth. College isn’t the only way to make that happen.  

MW: Finally, if you could share one piece of advice with every high school senior in the US, what would it be? 

MR: DO NOT RUSH on any decision you make. Do not feel you are rushed to go ahead and choose. The doors to college, the doors to the activities you love, all those things will remain in the world. It’s terrifying to sign up for something with anything less than full certainty and we do that often to a lot of young people. They feel that college is the only correct path. 

This thinking could trap a lot of people and stop them from flourishing further if they had waited because those doors are still going to be there, potentially without college debt.  

Mike Remshifski’s story is unique, more so now than in the past. Many aren’t as lucky. If a young adult is never exposed to the vast variety of industry work and the fruitful careers it can lead to, no blame can be put on that student. Parents, educators, media, all promote college as the only way to secure a stable, high-paying career. Many of these entities have long been unaware of what the modern manufacturing industry has to offer. In New Jersey alone the average annual salary of a manufacturing professional is over $94,000. With great benefits, professional development opportunities, and even tuition reimbursement programs, manufacturing should not be overlooked. 

This is only one story. NJMEP and the rest of the industry need to help open more of these doors. Engineering Week takes place during February 21st – 25th but inspiring the next generation workforce should never stop. Connect with local schools, engage with MEP centers located in every state and Puerto Rico, invite educators to tour facilities, and always be an advocate for manufacturing and STEM. This is the only way to ensure the industry will have a strong base of young adults entering the field. 

Michael Womack is the Marketing and Communications for the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NJMEP). NJMEP provides consulting, education, and training to New Jersey Manufacturers. He began his career in 2015 as a Social Media Manager for an advertising agency with a client base of manufacturers and logistics companies across the United States. Later, he worked for a manufacturer in Fairfield New Jersey in the marketing department until his current role at NJMEP. Passionate about education and manufacturing, he works to shine a light on today’s advanced manufacturing industry, breaking down the stigma associated with the industry, working to ensure U.S. manufacturers bridge the skills gap in order to maintain global competitiveness.        

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