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What a (School) Year it’s Been!

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By Brynt Parmeter, Director of Workforce Development, Education, and Training

We wouldn’t have thought it possible, but overwhelming interest from community colleges and high schools around the San Francisco Bay Area, combined with enthusiastic feedback from high school students themselves is a great problem to have. Due to a lot of hard work by the whole NextFlex team, FlexFactor™, our project-based learning program, is a major hit!

Beginning with eight students last fall in one high school, participation in FlexFactor then mushroomed to 205 students in the spring semester in five high schools across four different school districts. The astonishing news is that over 20 high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area have signed up to participate in the 2017-2018 academic year which will result in over 1000 student participants.

Growing the next generation advanced manufacturing workforce is critical to the NextFlex mission. It also supports the institute’s primary tasks of developing technologies for commercial adoption while supporting a sustainable manufacturing ecosystem. Over the course of the four-week FlexFactor program, students work in teams to conceptualize an FHE-based device that solves a human health or performance monitoring problem, develop a business model around the product, and pitch it to a panel of industry experts.

In the process, students become immersed in advanced in advanced technology and entrepreneurship, and gain a deeper understanding of the education and career pathways into advanced manufacturing. They are also enrolled in a local community college and gain a unit of credit for successfully completing the FlexFactor program. This makes it easy for them to continue their education upon graduating high school since they are already enrolled college students. Through FlexFactor, NextFlex is conveying the broader scope of creativity involved in advanced manufacturing and allows students to visualize themselves as part of this sector thereby actively increasing the U.S. STEAM talent pipeline.

The anchor for the FlexFactor program is the community college. Around this anchor, critical participants include local high schools and industry partners. Around this core group, important supporting agencies such as education district offices, workforce investment boards, city chamber of commerce, all play an important role in the ecosystem supporting the connection between industry and the student.

What we’ve learned is that there is, indeed, a talent pipeline shortage looming across all FHE manufacturing occupations. This data was validated in a 2016 study for NextFlex by the Workforce Intelligence Network (WIN) that reported 25% of the workforce in FHE occupations is over 55 years old, while only 6% is under the age of 24, indicating the talent pipeline shortage that the industry will face as experienced workers begin to retire. A copy of the full WIN study is available at www.nextflex.us.

We also learned that there is enthusiasm in industry to connect with students who are unsure of career opportunities in advanced manufacturing sectors and are unaware of new technologies now in development that will change lives in significant ways. This is the promise of FHE, and the FlexFactor program eliminates this gap by engaging industry in the classroom as mentors and as hosts of student tours to their facilities, giving 1:1 access to students who are motivated to learn what they need to know to potentially join that company. We have also learned that the community college role is very important, and by linking them directly to the high school classroom, their goals for increasing high school student enrollments are met. Finally, the high schools are delighted to add FlexFactor to their existing curriculum structure, because it delivers on these key education objectives: leadership, industry engagement, career readiness, and technical education.

No matter how you look at it, FlexFactor has become a huge hit locally in Silicon Valley, and is poised to go nationwide with educators in five states now looking at how to bring the program home to their students. It’s been a wild ride, and it’s been fun. For information on how to bring FlexFactor to your area, please contact Brynt Parmeter.

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