How 3M is expanding STEM career opportunities for students
May 3, 2021

Today’s manufacturing field looks immensely different than it did 20 years ago in the United States. Manufacturing jobs are increasingly high tech and blend engineering, computer and traditional manufacturing skills. In fact, the term “mechatronics” is gaining popularity as a more accurate representation of these roles. Another bright spot is that these jobs pay well, with average earnings starting between $30-$38 per hour. Plus, a two-year technical degree can be enough to land one of these positions. Students often graduate debt-free.

Since 2017, 3M has collaborated with a growing number of high schools and technical colleges to provide students with a unique and vital opportunity to learn first-hand what a career in the skilled trade industry looks like today. The 3M Manufacturing and Academic Partnerships program, or MAP, was created as 3M began to see a concerning trend at some of its plants: as the older workforce began to retire at a higher rate, there weren’t enough young, skilled trade workers to fill those vacancies. It’s an industry-wide challenge across the U.S.: There is a significant shortage of skilled trade workers primed and ready to fill roles that are increasingly vacated by retirements, and it’s something 3M hopes to help change. 3M’s MAP program is working to connect students to careers in manufacturing through grants that support a robust mechatronics curriculum, provides hands-on education for students and allows access to 3M employees as guest educators. Each year 3M, in collaboration with Festo (the maker of the MechLab trainers and the curriculum used in the MAP program) also hosts an annual Educator Summit which provides professional development for teachers who participate in the MAP program across the country.  Sean Mullan leads the MAP program at 3M and is working to dispel the myths that have overshadowed jobs within the manufacturing industry.

“Until recently, students had no exposure to this industry when they began making career path decisions,” Mullan said. “3M wanted to support STEM education and workforce development within manufacturing. MAP allowed us to do both.”

The 3M MAP program invests in programs that expose students to opportunities in the advanced manufacturing field.

“Getting in front of students in high school, then providing them with hands-on experience in college allows us to build a critical pipeline of talent that we will need in the very near future -- while at the same time allowing students to explore a range of career path choices.”

Partnerships in Hutchinson and Alexandria, Minnesota

The 3M facility in Hutchinson began noticing a troubling trend: the plant was facing a worker shortage that seemed to only be worsening. That's when the company saw an opportunity to build a talent pipeline through a partnership with nearby Alexandria Technical and Community College and Hutchinson Public schools through what would become the blueprint for the MAP program.

Todd Zarbok is a mechatronics instructor at Alex Tech in Alexandria, Minnesota.

“Our area high schools didn’t have the resources needed to properly set students up for understanding the opportunities in today’s skilled trade industry,” he said. “As a result, open roles are rapidly outpacing a dwindling young talent pool.”  

This lack of exposure to skilled trades means younger generations often feel the need to leave   Hutchinson after they graduate with the impression there aren’t lucrative career paths for them in the immediate area. In fact, Alex Tech found that 80% of the curriculum in the area’s high school didn’t represent jobs in that area.

“We helped schools design the curriculum and provided equipment and instructor training for skills education for the manufacturing industry,” he said.  

3M also enlisted the help of the 3M plant in Hutchinson itself. Employees took on the role of guest educators and mentors in the classrooms. They opened their plant doors for a look into the life of a skilled trades professional – challenging perceptions of that “dirty, dark and dangerous” workshop floor.

A hands-on head start

Marcus Smahel is finishing his second year at Alex Tech. Smahel initially planned to pursue machine tooling but altered his course because of the 3M MAP program. “The mechatronics program offered training in a wider variety of skillsets and I thought it would expand my opportunities when it came time to enter the workforce,” he said. “I feel like my experiences have broadened my career choices.”

As a multi-skilled technician, Smahel will be in high demand. He will graduate with an impressive depth of knowledge across the spectrum of advanced manufacturing skills. While COVID-19 was a slight rumble strip on his road to graduation, he said the program’s instructors kept he and other students on pace. Smahel is confident that after graduation he’ll have the skills to land his first job.

First-year Alex Tech student, Chelsey Havemeier, has high hopes for her future in hydraulic sales. Havemeier got her first taste of technical training in high school and discovered she enjoyed working with her hands. While many of her classmates opted to pursue a four-year degree, Havemeier ultimately chose Alex Tech because of its robust mechatronics program supported by 3M.

“My experience at Alex Tech and in the MAP program will give me a more solid idea of what I want to do after graduation than the people who have gone into four-year programs,” she said. “While their first few years are focused on more general classes and lectures, I immediately got to focus in on specific skills and did the hands-on work I enjoy in labs.”

Great success so far; high hopes for the future

After only four years, the MAP program has seen impressive success. In fact, 3M is working to expand the program to schools throughout the U.S. and expects to launch a pilot program in Poland soon.

Sean Mullan, the MAP program leader at 3M, is optimistic about the future of manufacturing in the U.S., especially as programs like MAP are starting to attract and retain more young talent. Mullan said the program has also gone a long way in getting young adults to stay close to the communities they grew up in while providing them a lucrative career path.

“Enrollment in these programs is at about 90%. And the careers in this field pay well and offer great benefits,” said Mullan. “Not only do students typically graduate debt-free, they also have the opportunity to go back for a four-year degree if they wish. This is rewarding work. And we want to make sure these kids have every opportunity to learn about it.”

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