Stihl’s manufacturing technology summer camp helps to address the skills gap

Over the next decade, 2 million manufacturing jobs out of 3.5 million available positions are expected to go unfilled according to the National Association of Manufacturers.

That shortage of needed versus available talent is why summer camps, such as the Manufacturing Technology Summer Camp at Stihl, are vital to help introduce young people to the world of modern manufacturing.

The German company, which makes consumer and professional outdoor power equipment, has several manufacturing facilities, including the location in Virginia Beach established more than 40 years ago.

 Now in its sixth year, the free, four-day camp is a collaboration between Dream It. Do It. Virginia and Stihl. It exposes high school students to engineering concepts and careers while they work in teams, under the guidance of coaches, to set up and run their own production lines.

During this year’s camp, July 26 through July 29, six teams of six campers designed and built handheld strength testers using 20 components. The majority of components are from Stihl’s materials.

The campers, which included 10 females and four returning from last year, gained insight into the skills and teamwork needed to turn raw materials into finished goods in a competitive manufacturing environment.

Pierce Corson, a rising sophomore at Ocean Lakes High School’s Math and Science Academy is one of the returnees.

A fan of the Science Channel’s “How It’s Made,” Pierce, 15, said he’s always been a hands-on kind of guy.

“I made tree forts with my dad, so this seemed like the natural extension to learn more,” Pierce said.

Jaelen Guzauskis, 17, a rising senior at Landstown High School, couldn’t pinpoint just one part of the camp that he liked the best.

“Everything about it interests me,” said Jaelen whose father works at Stihl.

On the last day of the camp, the teams participated in a competition to assemble, market and present their product to a panel of judges that included Stephen Ballenger, vice president of operations at Stihl and Vanessa Rastberger, director of Workforce Solutions at Virginia Manufacturers Association.

“We are trying to educate parents, guidance counselors and principals,” said Linda Shrewsberry, public relations specialist for Stihl. “We want them to know there is an alternative path other than college or flipping burgers. This is not your grandfather’s dirty jobs facility; this is high-tech manufacturing.”

Bradley Holmes, 22, is one of those young people who attended the camp several years ago and then decided to take an unconventional path toward his career.

Holmes earned a degree from a high school technical academy, completed two years of community college and instead of continuing on to earn a four-year degree in engineering, he chose to enter the four-year mechatronics technician apprenticeship with Stihl in 2015.

 Holmes was one of five apprentices selected that year from an applicant pool of more than 300.

Mechatronics technicians have skills in electronics, polymer molding, robotics repair and maintenance, welding and machining.

Stihl’s apprenticeship program, which started in 1984, enables participants to learn a trade, work a 40-hour week with hands-on training and attend community college while they earn a wage and receive benefits.

“It’s a great program; they come out with a career, a journeyman certificate, college degree and a job with Stihl,” said Andy Jaeckle, human resources manager for Stihl.

Ryan Buzzy, 18, a 2016 graduate of Kellam High School, also chose the same route as Holmes. A first year apprentice at Stihl, Buzzy is the first to enter the apprenticeship program straight out of high school.

“It is a great opportunity to get my foot in the door and experience the world of technology,” said Buzzy, who noted he will be debt-free and have a career in four years. “I’m able to go right into the working field.”

In 2015, the average manufacturing workers in the U.S. earned $81,289 annually, including benefits, or $26 per hour, not including benefits, according to The Bureau of Economic Analysis and Bureau of Labor Statistics.