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Students compete to make the coolest video on Philly manufacturers

Whooping and hollering, the team from East Norriton Middle School huddled and high-fived before leaving the stage Monday with their trophy for best team spirit at the first "What's So Cool About Manufacturing" video contest, sponsored by the Manufacturing Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.

Monday's event, aimed to attract young people to a career in manufacturing, had all the hoopla of the Academy Awards — minus, of course, the designer couture, the red carpet, and the envelope fiasco that marked this year's Oscar ceremony.

"I'm just fascinated by creating and by fixing things," said Braylan Farmer, 14, an eighth grader at Morrisville Middle School who yearns to study diesel mechanics. Her team won "best educational value" for its video about Harold Beck & Sons Inc., the Newtown based manufacturer of industrial equipment.

"I want to take ingredients and just make them into something that can help the world," she said. "Everything you see comes from manufacturing."

The murmuring you hear? That's the sound of the sponsors of Monday's event saying "Amen."

Manufacturers are hoping that Monday's event will be part of an answer to their prayers for more young people such as Farmer to set their sights on manufacturing to fill the workforce pipeline as baby boomers retire and as manufacturing becomes more high-tech and complex.

Four in ten "manufacturers say they can't find workers with the right skills for existing jobs," Steve Jurash, chief executive of the Philadelphia Manufacturers Alliance, told a crowd of about 500 gathered for Monday's awards ceremony at Montgomery County Community College.

The average manufacturing employee earns about $81,000, including the cost of benefits, he said.

Fourteen middle-school-aged teams from Philadelphia, Bucks, and Montgomery Counties made videos at 14 area manufacturers, including the Philly Shipyard, the Rodon Group (which makes K'nex toys) and AgustaWestland helicopters.

Those might be the most well-known, but the team from East Norriton managed to find "What's Cool" about Electro Soft Inc., an electronics manufacturing company in Montgomeryville whose founder started his business at his kitchen table.

On Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m., 12 teams from Chester and Delaware Counties were to hold their "What's So Cool about Manufacturing" awards ceremony at Penn State's Great Valley campus in Malvern, with 65 to 70 students participating. There are eight different contests taking place across Pennsylvania and more areas are joining the program each year.

The "What's So Cool" video idea began in the Lehigh Valley, where manufacturers, concerned about the lack of workers in the pipeline, realized they needed to reach young people as they were making decisions about high schools. Welding and machining programs at area technical career high schools had been closing for a lack of enrollment just as the need for these skills in the workplace was increasing.

The thinking was to capture the imagination of the middle school students by giving them video equipment and sending them into local manufacturers who would put up with a hoard of youngsters in their factories. The kids would produce videos and compete with the other schools on which could produce the best, or the most creative, or the best editing – generating lots of prizes.

Their friends would have to watch the videos to vote, spreading the "What's So Cool" message, and just as important, parents also would see the videos, just as they were guiding their children in high school decision making.

"I think kids thought [the factory] was going to be a dirt floor and a light bulb," said Paul Gannon, vice president of manufacturing at Stockwell Elastomerics, the Northeast Philadelphia manufacturer of custom gaskets. Gannon's company hosted a team from Holy Cross Elementary School in Mount Airy. "I think it did open their eyes."

"They got to work very closely with our people," Gannon said. And, he said, it was a morale booster for the employees to be able to show their work to the students. The Holy Cross team won a prize for its video.

Maybe it's because Ben Swoyer's mother, Pam, is an administrator at Middle Bucks Institute of Technology in Jamison, but the eighth grader doesn't need to be sold on the value of a career-technical high school – even though his career goal requires him to head for an advanced degree.

"Since I was a little kid, I wanted to be a dentist," said Swoyer, a member of the Lenape Middle School team in Bucks County. "I like teeth and how they work."

If he goes to Middle Bucks, Swoyer can still get all his academic credentials, but he can also enroll in the school's dental assistant program and end up with a certification. That will give him the ability to gain experience in his field and be employed while he's in college.

"I can see if I really like it," he said, "instead of going to college and wasting all that money."