High School Students Gain Hands-on Experience in Manufacturing

Published aug. 13, 2015

Summer can be one of the most transformational times of the year for high school students. This became evident after I traveled to Morristown, Tennessee, to see a group of high school students present their summer internship experiences at the Alcoa Howmet manufacturing facility. Alcoa Howmet is one of the world’s largest manufacturers for the aerospace industry, specializing in making ceramic cores used in aircraft engines and industrial gas turbines. 

Tennessee is a member of the Pathways to Prosperity Network, a collaboration of 12 states, Jobs for the Future, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education working to implement and scale grades 9-14 regional pathways in high-wage, high-demand sectors that launch students into careers while leaving open the prospect of further education. Exposing students to careers and opportunities to develop skills through work-based learning experiences is a core element in the development of career pathways. This past year, Tennessee worked to strengthen state-level policies that promote work-based learning in high schools and created numerous resources for regions as they develop career exploration programs. In 2014, to support the Governor’s Drive to 55 college completion initiative, the state established Tennessee L.E.A.P. (Labor Education Alignment Program)—a $10 million competitive grant program that awards funds to regions working to eliminate the skills gap in targeted industry sectors. The internship program at Alcoa Howmet, and other partnering employers, is funded through a state L.E.A.P. grant, which also provides stipends for students.

Michael Watson, the Hamblen County Schools Career and Technical Education Supervisor, Ruby Glasscock, Alcoa Howmet’s HR director, and a student intern greeted me when I arrived. The attendees included parents, Alcoa Howmet employees, the Hamblen County Mayor, the Hamblen County Director of Schools, and several state-level officials from the Tennessee Department of Education. Watson and Glasscock welcomed everyone and expressed how pleased they were with the interns’ diligence and hard work throughout the summer. Four students then delivered a PowerPoint presentation that highlighted their manufacturing area of focus, projects, and the lessons they learned from their internship. I tried to follow along, writing down the technical terms associated with the electrical engineering departments and attempting to replicate the charts that students created to conduct data analysis on things like “noise sampling” to ensure the facility was compliant with OSHA regulations on sound exposure. However, I soon realized that these students’ day-to-day responsibilities were quite simply over my head. 

These students had reached a level of complex industry knowledge that made me appreciate the numerous other professional skills they developed during their internship. For instance, the students understood their department’s role within the operational structure of the entire facility and why certain actions were integral to the overall manufacturing process. One student articulated, “I learned that there are many different layers of engineering and manufacturing—it’s not just about the building, it’s about process development, and it’s not just a straight line, it’s like a spider web that connects at one point.” A different student working in the Environmental Health & Safety department developed a wellness campaign for the company focused on drinking enough water and exercising, and created informational brochures about waste segregation. While this student’s primary projects focused on tracking and analyzing injury data and noise exposure, it was clear that the wellness-related projects exposed him to other aspects about the world of work. He shared that he learned “proper communication can increase work productivity.” 

In addition to a combination of technical skills and workplace knowledge, the students developed impressive interpersonal and communication skills. Each of the students delivered confident, articulate, and informative presentations and could discuss complex topics and provide clear answers to audience questions. Students thanked everyone at the close of their presentations, including their employee mentors, school administrators, and the L.E.A.P. grant program managers. They demonstrated a genuine appreciation for the opportunity to work at Alcoa Howmet and an understanding that it was a joint effort to make paid internships available to them. Like the importance of strong communication skills, the ability to acknowledge and show gratitude toward individuals that help them along their professional journey is a vital interpersonal skill and sign of maturity that will benefit these students as they continue on to college and careers.

The students’ ability to think critically and self-reflect was also evident when they briefly discussed their plans after high school, with one sharing hopes of joining the military and enrolling in an engineering program at a postsecondary institution and another crediting the internship with honing in on his interest in mechanical engineering over civil engineering. The same student said he plans to attend Walters State Community college and transfer to the University of Tennessee—a pathway the Career Success Coordinator at the Hamblen County Board of Education imagines is heavily influenced by the Tennessee Promise scholarship program, which grants Tennessee students free tuition to community college. The thoughtfulness the students expressed with respect to their college and career goals illustrated a level of strategic thinking that I imagine the internship helped foster. I believe real-world exposure helps students become more sophisticated and empowered advocates for their future—a critical skill that many students today lack, but can dramatically influence the amount of time and money it takes before they are prepared to enter the labor market. 

Even outside of the impressive technical skills and knowledge they acquired over the course of their internship, it was clear that the experience had a profound effect on the students’ development as individuals and future professionals. Students described gaining a significant sense of self-confidence and independence through the experience of dealing with real manufacturing problems, finding solutions, and creating a plan to implement those solutions. The level of responsibility given to the students surprised me, since the problems the students were helping to solve had actual financial implications for the operations of the facility. Yet, those types of high-stakes situations have been the most powerful in my own professional development, and these students were fortunate to have these learning experiences while still in high school. Perhaps the most important lesson that all adults learn in their careers, and is a lesson that one student learned during his internship, is to “seek out the help of others, because your idea or solution may not be the best one.” A wise statement coming from a high school student already well on his way to a career. 

Photograph courtesy of Sheila Jackson taken in Morristown, Tennessee.