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Virginia Beach Company Fights US Skills Gap with Camp

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There's a growing manufacturing skills gap in the United States. In fact, ManpowerGroup reports the hardest jobs to fill last year were skilled trade worker positions.

A Virginia Beach company is fighting against that by reaching out to high school students.

Courtesy of manufacturing giant, Stihl Incorporated, the students got a firsthand look at the industry -- one that is often overlooked in today's culture of digital technology. 

Equipped with safety goggles and an appetite for learning, they attended the company's fifth annual Manufacturing Technology Summer Camp.

"Manufacturing is one of those things that there's so many things that you look at, and you're like, 'Wow, I don't really know how that's made, but it's really interesting,'" Roark Corson, a high school junior and camp participant, told CBN News.

"I've always wanted to be maybe a scientist or a mathematician, and those have places here at manufacturing places like Stihl, either working in the assembly line or maybe checking the process or doing research and development," he shared.

Stihl manufactures outdoor power equipment including chainsaws. The company hopes efforts like the camp will help prevent the growing manufacturing skills gap in the United States from getting wider.

"I think going forward, we can't close that gap -- it's there -- that ship sailed, but we can insure that the gap doesn't get bigger, and we can insure we don't have another gap in the future by keeping the momentum going for what we're doing with things like the camp that we have today," Lorraine Wagner, Stihl's director of manufacturing, told CBN News.

The kids are not building power equipment at the camp, but they are manufacturing -- learning skills like soldering and prototype building.

In addition, the students have a chance to win scholarship money. A competition at the camp involves building what's called an "Escape Bot" -- a robot that uses infrared and LED technology to detect obstacles.

"That's what they're going to see, that these various skill sets they're building culminate in a product being produced," Stephen Ballenger, Stihl's vice president of operations, explained to CBN News.

And those skill sets interest more than just students that gravitate toward math and science.

"Coming from a musically inclined background, I really want to try and pursue more options for a career later on," shared Jonathan Castillo, a high school sophomore and camp participant. "So I thought going to a technology and manufacturing camp would be a cool way to, I guess, invest in other options." 
High school senior Kari Wilson is one of 10 girls taking part in the camp -- 10 out of 35 total campers. It's the largest number of girls to ever attend.

"When the speaker, this morning, when she was telling us about her life and how far she's come as a woman, I mean I was getting chills," Wilson told CBN News, referring to Wagner. "It's so inspirational because that's... everything to me, to be in a time and place where I can do anything. There's no longer these roadblocks that there once was. It's so inspirational, honestly."

"I'm usually the only woman in the room, and that shouldn't be the way," Wagner said. "There's nothing different about me than any of those girls in there that they couldn't do exactly what I do."

"You're only limited I truly believe by your own imagination, where you see yourself going," she continued.

Stihl hopes both female and male students will get excited about manufacturing, and from the looks of the camp, it appears the company is on track.

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