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News | April 23, 2024

Building an Inclusive Manufacturing Talent Pipeline

By Manufacturing USA

“Nose presses” is not an official metric of workforce recruiting success for the Penn State Digital Foundry on 5th Avenue in New Kensington, PA, but it is hugely symbolic in the quest to expand the manufacturing talent pipeline in underserved communities, according to Sherri McCleary, the Executive Director of the foundry.

A nose presser is a passerby who stops to press their face up against a window to see what is going on inside, says McCleary. The facility is one of seven CESMII Smart Manufacturing Innovation Centers around the country. The Digital Foundry demonstrates new technology to local manufacturers and offers training to current workforce and potential hires. It is located in New Kensington, a community about 20 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, but it serves the greater region.

“People have come off the street to ask what we are doing inside here,” she says. “People ask about getting their kids connected.”

The Digital Foundry is a microcosm of what the manufacturing sector faces in reaching previously untapped populations needed to help close the projected gap of 4 million jobs by 2030. The state-of-the-art facility was intentionally designed with windows in front so passers-by could see inside. It was intentionally placed in a visible location in an underserved area – New Kensington has a poverty rate of about 20 percent. 

“We can’t solve our workforce issues if we are leaving out up to 50 percent of the potential workforce,” McCleary says.

Photo of CESMII’s Digital Foundry in New Kensington, PA, which was designed to encourage passersby to look inside.
CESMII’s Digital Foundry in New Kensington, PA, was designed to encourage passersby to look inside.

The Digital Foundry is addressing the talent pipeline with school tours for K-12, and after-school programs with non-profits. College students do classes, labs, and project work at the demonstration stations, and 15 students have participated in internships since opening in late 2022. 

The Digital Foundry targets approximately 5,000 small to medium manufacturers within a 40-mile radius to provide access to new technologies, McCleary says. Many of those manufacturers focus on machining and fabrication, serving as parts suppliers to automotive, aerospace, and many other industries. The ARM Institute, which like CESMII is also a member of the Manufacturing USA network, provides funding for robotics-focused activities at the facility. 

It’s a regional hub for innovation, creative thinking, problem-solving, learning, and collaboration. It brings exposure to the latest in digital technologies. The goal is to accelerate and de-risk the adoption of smart manufacturing technology for companies while educating and training prospects. The Digital Foundry also provides continuing education and smart manufacturing training for current personnel from engineering to shop floor, with over 300 people trained. The vision is to help match the needs of manufacturers with opportunities for local residents.


Pittsburgh is one of five metro areas designated in 2023 as a workforce hub by the Biden Administration, in part because the region has seen significant investments from the private sector in advanced manufacturing. One example in Pittsburgh is the creation of the Robotics Manufacturing Hub, hosted by the ARM Institute.

The workforce hub will help create equitable career pathways leading to jobs in advanced manufacturing sectors by partnering with labor unions, workforce development organizations, and companies to expand pre- and registered apprenticeships and technical education. It will involve state and local officials, community colleges, high schools, and other stakeholders to ensure a diverse and skilled workforce can meet the demand for labor driven by these investments.

Photo of Sherri McCleary, Executive Director of CESMII’s Digital Foundry.
Sherri McCleary, Executive Director of CESMII’s Digital Foundry.

Fulfilling the demand for manufacturing jobs in the Pittsburgh region will require more than education and training, according to McCleary and other workforce stakeholders. 

It will require removing barriers that traditionally deter underserved populations from participating in the manufacturing workforce, such as access to childcare, transportation, food insecurity, and job readiness skills. As it recruits participants for its workforce training, the Digital Foundry works with Auberle, a local non-profit social service agency, the public library, local churches, and other organizations to address these issues.

“You don’t know the population you are trying to reach,” she says. “New entrants in the workforce mix – such as the unemployed and underemployed – are most challenging to meet. That’s not our expertise, so we need to find partners to help. We need to find ways to take flyers to churches or the Salvation Army.”


PowerAmerica, the Manufacturing USA institute dedicated to wide bandgap semiconductors, has partnered with the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center (NCCETC) to provide solar and renewable energy workforce and professional training opportunities nationwide to underserved populations. NCCETC developed virtual curricula for courses on the Fundamentals of Solar Design and Installation and Solar Storage. They targeted educators, students, and working technicians (contractors, electricians, and roofers).

PowerAmerica’s efforts began with a NIST (National Institute of Standards and

Technology) grant to help Native American communities better prepare for future disasters and emergencies. Native American communities and other underserved populations were disproportionately affected by the COVID pandemic – in large part due to the widespread lack of electric utility infrastructure. PowerAmerica is leading an effort that includes developing a solar-powered microgrid to power on-site field hospitals, drones for medical supply delivery, and air filtration/purification. In addition, they are developing and deploying a curriculum for community college students on clean energy technology, including solar energy, energy storage, microgrids, and indoor air quality. The grant was subsequently expanded to assist other underserved communities.

The first two rounds of classes involved more than 120 participants from 33 states – 31 percent African-American, and 20 percent Native American or Alaska Native. Training has included participants from 16 Native American Tribes, 11 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), five Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), four Native American Serving Non-Tribal Institutions (NASNTIs), and four Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs). Forty-four attendees have registered to take the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners' PV Associate exam, an internationally recognized credential

“The second round of training included an entire class of students from Florida A&M University,” says Brittany Santore, Senior Clean Energy Training Coordinator for NCCETC, which is housed at North Carolina State University. She added that NCCETC is working with professors across the country to develop Power Electronics courses.

In a post-training survey, one student said the training provided her with industry knowledge that would have been difficult to find within the LGBTQ+ community. Another student said the training helped her secure an apprenticeship, which led to a full-time career path position.


The El Paso-Juarez region along the Texas-Mexico border is the fifth largest manufacturing hub in North America and includes the presence of 70 Fortune 500 corporations and thousands of small companies. CESMII has partnered with The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to offer a Smart Manufacturing Certification, which includes five course modules. 

UTEP is targeting about 350 manufacturers in the region that need to upgrade facilities and equipment and upskill their workforce, according to Amit Lopes, an Aassistant Pprofessor of Industrial, Manufacturing, and Systems Engineering. UTEP helps the companies identify and develop more advanced technological solutions, and it helps provide the skilled workforce the companies will need for their new technology.

UTEP recruits companies to come learn about the smart manufacturing certification program and then enroll their staff members into short courses for hands-on learning. Those individuals can go back to their facilities to implement pilot projects. The program is working with the Borderplex Alliance, an economic development agency, to deploy smart manufacturing solutions at 20 local industry partners. 

The program is fulfilling a need to align factories that are being technologically  reconfigured with job prospects who have been trained in the basics of smart manufacturing. It is also exposing underserved populations at UTEP and local high schools to smart manufacturing and partner companies where they may find future employment. “Our population is about 78 to 80 percent Hispanic,” Lopes says. “We’re providing a manufacturing workforce match” to local companies.


Other Manufacturing USA institutes face challenges similar to CESMII’s Digital Foundry in finding potential manufacturing workers and enrolling them in training programs.

“Finding the career pathway is often more challenging for these prospects than finding employment once you are in the pipeline” says Bob Geer, AIM Photonics’ Director of Education and Workforce Development. 

Here is a quick look at three additional Manufacturing USA network programs that reach underserved populations through higher education and industry partners:


The AIM Photonics internship program partners with HBCUs and MSIs, including Jackson State University, North Carolina A&T State University, the University of Puerto Rico, Navajo Technical University, and community colleges in New York City. The interns work for 12 weeks at the institute’s Albany NanoTech Complex to build a talent pipeline.


Photo of CyManII’s Mobile Training Vehicle (MTV) which tours schools in the San Antonio Independent School District.
CyManII’s Mobile Training Vehicle (MTV) tours schools in the San Antonio Independent School District.

CyManII, the cybersecurity manufacturing innovation institute, has a Mobile Training Vehicle (MTV) that goes to local San Antonio high schools to work with students on cybersecurity training and e-sports competitions. While Hispanics represent only about four percent of cybersecurity professionals, the San Antonio Independent School District is 89.8 percent Hispanic. This partnership is essential to broadening the pipeline of Hispanic workers wanting to pursue cybersecurity careers. The MTV also is available for training at companies and organizations.


LIFT, the institute dedicated to advanced materials, has a state-of-the-art 6,500-square foot immersive Learning Lab at its headquarters near downtown Detroit that prepares students for the most in-demand manufacturing careers, from field trips for K-12 students to on-site certification courses for adults. Detroit’s population is about 78 percent African-American, and its poverty level is about three times higher than the national average. Students learn on the same equipment they will encounter in the workplace, reducing employers’ need to provide additional training on the job. LIFT recently announced plans to expand its technology and talent development operations in Puerto Rico.


Each of the Manufacturing USA network institutes has dedicated workforce development staff and programming to build an inclusive manufacturing talent pipeline. Their efforts include specialty online learning initiatives, competency-based and individualized curricula, and other flexible models – which are important considerations for underrepresented populations for whom traditional classroom programs may pose attendance challenges due to lack of transportation and time constraints.

In 2022, the institutes collectively worked with over 2,500 member organizations to collaborate on more than 670 major technology and workforce research and development projects and engaged over 106,000 people in advanced manufacturing training. State, industry, and federal funds contributed $416 million to these activities. 

To learn about how institutes are reaching out to underserved populations, visit the workforce development page.