Manufacturing Day in the South Bend – Elkhart Region: Past, Present, and Future


Notes: This article is the first piece within a five-part series titled the LIFT Network Career Exploration Series, highlighting features and insights into the region’s pivot to virtual career exploration during COVID-19. The LIFT Network, managed by the South Bend – Elkhart Regional Partnership, provided a grant to support industry video production in collaboration with the Horizon Education Alliance, Marshall County Economic Development Corporation and the South Bend Regional Chamber for the Fall 2020 academic semester. Videos may be found on the South Bend – Elkhart Regional Partnership’s LIFT Network Career Exploration page beginning Friday October 2nd, 2020.

In a region like ours, which includes the counties of Marshall, Elkhart, and St. Joseph, having a high concentration of manufacturing employers, Manufacturing Day plays a significant role introducing learners to viable career opportunities within the region’s largest employment sector – with nearly 1-in-3 (or 93,000 out of approximately 300,000) jobs being held within manufacturing firms. Awareness and understanding are the first steps to open the eyes of students to the career opportunities connected with our regional economy.

Through the efforts of the Manufacturing Institute, the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, and the National Association of Manufacturers, Manufacturing Day was created in 2011 and later established as the first Friday in October. Regional participation grew gradually. In 2013, attendance was sparse as two St. Joseph County operations opened their doors for Manufacturing Day tours. The following year, North American Signs enlisted the help of the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce. Connecting with the South Bend Community School Corporation yielded an immediate, enthusiastic response and the first Manufacturing Day event for St. Joseph County involved 422 students, 15 manufacturers, and Ivy Tech Community College.

Photo provided by the South Bend Regional Chamber

Marshall County first participated in Manufacturing Day in 2015, with an initial event involving five employers, two school districts—Plymouth and Bremen—and 75 students. Elkhart County’s participation began in 2016, through the combined leadership of the Economic Development Corporation of Elkhart County and the Horizon Education Alliance (HEA). Elkhart County’s Manufacturing Day launched with participation from 600 students across all seven county school districts, and has since grown even further through HEA’s convening and collaboration model with the area school districts.

Program growth has been rapid in all three counties and the mission has remained consistent. Educators in the school districts and post-secondary educators have connected Manufacturing Day with existing learning pathways such as Career and Technical Education, work-based learning, and postsecondary education recruitment.

Through their participation, employers are exposed to a wider community and can showcase their company strengths, technology, current projects, and culture at Manufacturing Day events. Businesses design the experience for the students—with hands-on, interactive elements as well as tours and presentations by employees eager to share their work.

The characteristics and demographics of each county shape the specifics of Manufacturing Day events. Having the highest concentration of Recreational Vehicle manufacturing employers in the nation – 80% of the world’s RVs are produced in the county –, Elkhart County is home to many large employers eager for students to tour their operations. Targeted exclusively to eighth graders, Elkhart’s Manufacturing “Day” traditionally takes place across six days – but will also pivot to a month-long series given changes with implementation due to COVID-19. Automation plays a large role in the local industrial sectors of Marshall County; employers are active in seeking to develop the talent they need and have been very willing to help with Manufacturing Day. Schedules are adjusted to best serve both employers and students and Manufacturing Day events span three days. High school students, primarily ninth graders, are the students tapped to participate. St. Joseph County’s Manufacturing Day, shifting this year from a one-day event to a month-long series, involves a diverse array of companies, many of them small to mid-size. Attention is focused on the industrial sector, highlighting the multitude of opportunities that exist beyond the county’s well-known education and healthcare sectors. High school students at all levels active in or interested in the CTE program are invited to participate; some emphasis is placed on juniors and seniors.

A snapshot of program growth up through 2019 shows student participation of 3000 in Elkhart, 300 in Marshall, and 700 in St. Joseph. These numbers reflect the focus on specific grade levels and limits on transportation capabilities. In most cases, students tour employers within their own county, but as of 2019, are largely unaware of opportunities in nearby counties. Marshall and St. Joseph Counties have recently joined in some cross-county activities and St. Joseph County has included employers in Southwestern Michigan.

The challenge presented by the current model is how to connect and scale the activities across the region into a more systematic, broad network.

Timing is everything. For Manufacturing Day, the program’s natural next goal is expanding the program to reach a wider audience and do so more effectively. This advancement is within reach because of the LIFT Network career exploration funding and program support combined with the pivot to digital program delivery in response to COVID-driven challenges,

Limitations on gatherings and cancellation of scheduled face-to-face events resulting from COVID precautions have established a virtual format for Manufacturing Day 2020 events. All three counties are leveraging technology to drive the experience and reach a broader audience. Virtual tours, employer videos and digital delivery create flexibility with several advantages.

Instead of being limited to specific dates, times, and places for the event and tours, virtual tours and video experiences at manufacturing facilities can bring Manufacturing Day opportunities to a much broader audience. With freedom to view the materials at any time, schedule conflicts are not an issue; students who might not otherwise have been encouraged to participate will gain access to the experience; and parents of students or adult learners can easily share in the event. Beyond those who would be active participants in the learning experience, class counselors, high school administrators, and others can better understand the program offerings.

Virtual tours and an established body of resources are positioned to provide a solid base of information to a vast number of students, allowing in-person tours to be more intentional for deeper levels of interaction. Smaller companies that might not be able to accommodate tours of 15-30 students can participate more easily with a virtual tour format.

Along with a wider audience reach, flexible digital delivery and greater accessibility means that not only will more individuals within each county be able to participate but also—and more importantly—participation has the potential to cross county lines, unifying the region and increasing the pool of people reached by each employer.

A project of this scale would not be possible without the investment that LIFT Network is making in support of career exploration. This additional funding has provided for the staff and resources needed to produce a library of professionally developed videos that can be shared across the region as a permanent resource. This body of information shines a clear light on modern manufacturing and the point that good, well-paying jobs are to be found right here.

With input from each county, a systematic bank of information is being built that can be shared by students, recent graduates, and others across the region—not limited by county boundaries. Individuals can now be connected to many more pathways to training. The pivot to digital delivery has provided the link to meet regional distribution challenges.

Looking ahead, the expectation is that some level of in-person activities and events will ultimately resume, but they will be supported by a solid network of digital career exploration resources.