A Ford Motor Co. employee installs a front seat of a Ford Escape Wednesday at the Louisville Assembly Plant. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

A Ford Motor Co. employee installs a front seat of a Ford Escape Wednesday at the Louisville Assembly Plant. | Photo by Boris Ladwig.

Ford Motor Co. has launched a pilot project at Louisville Assembly Plant to pique high school students’ interest in advanced manufacturing careers.

The automaker recently invited 16 local high school teachers to tour the plant and spend some time with employees during a three-day “externship” experience to learn about real-world problems in manufacturing and the skills required to solve them.

Ford leaders said they hope the teachers talk about their experiences in classrooms and get more students interested in advanced manufacturing. English, math and science teachers, meanwhile, hope their first-hand experience with a respected employer will enable them to adequately answer one of the most ubiquitous student questions: “When will I ever use this knowledge after high school?”

Teachers hope that by telling students that success at Ford and other employers depends on communication, analysis and problem-solving skills, students will realize those annoying statistical word problems and English essays do, indeed, have real-world applications.

For years, manufacturers across the country have said they are struggling to find enough workers who possess basic math, problem-solving and soft skills, such as showing up to work every day.

Ford logoAccording to the Manufacturing Institute, about 2 million manufacturing jobs are expected to go unfilled by 2025 because of the so-called skills gap. The institute said that 82 percent of manufacturing executives who responded to a survey said the skills gap will affect their ability to meet customer demand, while 62 percent said it will curb their ability to innovate.

Local employers, too, have struggled. GE Appliances CEO Chip Blankenship has said the worker shortage is a “crisis.”

Some economists also have suggested that the skills gap is, at least in part, a pay gap, which employers could narrow by paying higher wages.

But even with starting wages of double the minimum wage — no college degree required — local employers are struggling to find applicants.

The starting wage at Ford is $15.78 per hour, or about $33,000 per year for a 40-hour work week. Within eight years, that wage is guaranteed to rise to $28 per hour, or about $58,000 annually under a contract recently ratified by the United Auto Workers union.

While the company has not improved the starting pay for years, it has bolstered the benefits package. Ford now reimburses up to $6,000 for tuition, up $1,000 from prior years. The automaker also extends health care benefits after 90 days, five months earlier than before.

And yet, two-thirds of applicants who are invited by Ford to take a pre-employment test do not show up, said Tami Hatfield, Ford’s workforce development coordinator.

That’s a stark contrast to what the automaker experienced years ago, when people slept in cars near Ford plants just so that they could make sure they showed up on time for a job interview.

And, Hatfield said, more than two-thirds of manufacturing employee applicants lack the required computer, technology and problem-solving skills.

Perception gap

Employees at Ford Motor Co.'s Louisville Assembly Plant connect axles and other parts to a Ford Escape frame. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

Employees at Ford Motor Co.’s Louisville Assembly Plant connect axles and other parts to a Ford Escape frame. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

To some extent, Ford also is combatting the perception among students and their parents that manufacturing is dirty work and that the industry no longer provides viable careers.

About a decade ago, Ford began a quasi public relations campaign to boost the industry’s image: It has brought robots to state fairs, invited students to tour plants — including 500 who toured Louisville Assembly Plant last school year — and reached out to schools so that they could adjust their curricula to teach skills that boost students’ job prospects. In other efforts, the automaker confronts students with real-world problems, including figuring out how to reduce tire noise to how to design a car that satisfies customers in more than 20 countries.

The automaker hopes the new externship it launched in Louisville this month aids those previous efforts by arming teachers with first-hand experiences in today’s modern manufacturing facilities.

Sam Lewis, a career and technical education teacher at Jefferson County Public Schools, said she participated primarily because she wanted to make sure the skilled trades that local schools are teaching line up with companies’ needs.

Lewis joined other local teachers and some recent Ford hires in a panel discussion Wednesday afternoon where they discussed their recent experiences with Ford.

Louisville Assembly Plant logoLewis also said that communities must move away from defining success as attending a four-year institution of higher learning. She said more teachers should spend a few days with local employers to gain insights that can help them better prepare their students for the job market.

Jeffersontown High School student Alex Beebe, who plans to study mechanical engineering at the University of Louisville, said that spending some time with employers can help students understand whether certain careers might work for them.

Many high school students — and their parents — may study lists of the highest-paying jobs or most sought-after graduates, but most have no idea about the actual work that they may be doing for decades.

Beebe said he got to talk to five engineers this week, which allowed him to observe what they do and to ask questions. It also provided valuable insights about their work schedule. While engineers make good salaries, Beebe said he did not know that many of them work 70 hours per week. That’s not the kind of information one finds in the lists that parents and students peruse, he said.

Hatfield said she hopes that other employers will follow Ford’s example to convince the community that advanced manufacturing provides not just jobs that pay a decent wage, but an entry into a long career.

Ford is reaching out to other companies that are struggling with the same dynamics. The automaker is joining forces with GE Appliances, for example, to brainstorm ideas to help narrow the skills gap and widen the worker pipeline.