Sanford, NC – Foot traffic flowed freely through rows of booths at Manufacturing Day, at least until you approached the end of one path near the back. There, three high school students fitted with virtual reality headsets and handheld devices went through what looked like an oddly lethargic dance, occasionally lifting their hands above their heads and then dropping them back down below the waist, occasionally turning their wrist and torsos or sliding side to side.
Around them, a small audience was growing, far enough behind so the three had room to maneuver, but close enough to watch for details, apparently trying to figure out exactly what was happening.
Alex Touchard said it looked a lot different from the inside. The student from Southern Lee High School said that what he was doing under the headset was changing the oil in an automobile. Unplugging the oil drain. Removing the filter. Cleaning the o-ring. And doing everything else that comes with the typical oil change.
It was his first encounter with virtual reality.
And his reaction? “It was actually pretty cool.”
This virtual reality simulation is one of about 300 developed by Transfr, a New York-based company that develops hands-on, simulated training to prepare workers for well-paying jobs. David Wilkinson, the representative from Transfr who carefully positioned each student and gave a quick orientation before setting them loose in virtual reality, said he came to give students a chance to experience careers in the automotive industry.
“They’re very excited,” he said about students going under the goggles. “This is a new way to learn. The goal here is not for this to be a game; it’s to be a life-changing experience to help them understand job opportunities.”
Hundreds of events are held across North America each fall to celebrate Manufacturing Day, including this one organized by Central Carolina Community College and held on Oct. 7 at the new E. Eugene Moore Manufacturing and Biotech Solutions Center in Sanford. The purpose is to inspire the next generation of skilled workers.
“In America today, we’re trying to get youth interested in careers in manufacturing,” said Jerry Pedley, president and employee owner of Mertek Solutions Inc., a Sanford-based company that designs and builds assembly machines. “Manufacturing is a good way to make a living and we have a lot of that in our area.
“It’s amazing what we have, and we’re here to help support that.”
Pedley has long been an advocate for Manufacturing Day. Before the pandemic, he organized his own plant tour with demonstrations at Mertek, often promoting it together with the CCCC-sponsored Manufacturing Day event. Manufacturing Day returned this year with an added dimension: More industrial vendors are now part of the mix.
Before the doors opened to the public on Friday, Hayden Ireland from Electric Supply and Equipment Co., one of those vendors, spotted Pedley and ran over to greet his friend.
“This is crazy,” Pedley said, pointing to the various company tables being stocked and organized for the full day ahead.
“I came here yesterday and it blew me away,” Ireland replied.
“Me, too. I brought my business cards because I’m going to be calling on customers. The manufacturing opportunities in this building are absolutely amazing.”
While many did check in on suppliers and colleagues throughout the day, the focus remained squarely on students, introducing them broadly to the idea of manufacturing, but also what kinds of specific jobs were available in the region.
That’s what lured Boon Edam from Lillington. After a group of welding students concluded an extended discussion about how the company manufactures its security entrance doors and turnstiles, Lead Fabrication Technician Kenneth McArthur and Continuous Improvement Engineer Starlin Ash took a few moments to answer questions about jobs.
“The common question we get is what positions the company has and what positions are available in manufacturing,” McArthur said after the welding students moved on. “For them, it’s about whether they want to go into this field. They like it. They think it’s very interesting.”
In addition to the virtual reality demonstration, there was another on welding conducted by the college. Caterpillar had two of their locally manufactured compact construction machines on display, which drew plenty of attention. Electric Supply and Equipment Co. was showing a controller, human-machine interface and variable-frequency drive — even decorated with a tiny skeleton as their nod to Halloween approaching.
Electric-car manufacturer VinFast and electronics manufacturer Wolfspeed — two companies that recently announced new massive, multi-billion-dollar production facilities in the area — were on hand to meet with students. And a few companies were going full swag, with promotional items, product samples and one even bringing a wheel to spin for prizes. And out back, there were free hot dogs and water. The hot dogs were compliments of Mertek Solutions and Electrical Supply & Equipment, with water provided by the Sanford Area Growth Alliance.
That atmosphere was exactly what organizers were trying to create.
“What I was hoping for at Manufacturing Day is exactly what we have here,” said Margaret Roberton, CCCC’s Vice President for Workforce Development, looking over the room later in the morning with lunchtime approaching. “We were looking for this level of engagement between the employers that we have in our communities and the students and individuals.
“We’ve seen a lot of middle school students getting introduced to different companies, high school students being intrigued by what is possible and community college students seeing where they’re going to apply the skills they’re learning.
“So, I’m really positive about the way things are going right now.”
Here is a list of companies and CCCC programs in attendance:
Armtec Defense Technologies
Bear Creek Arsenal
Carolina Training Associates
CCCC – Bioprocess Technology
CCCC – Computer Integrated Machining
CCCC – Electronics Engineering
CCCC – Industrial Systems Technology
CCCC – Welding Technology
Electric Supply & Equipment
JMC Tool & Machine
Liberty Tire Recycling
NC Manufacturing Extension Partnership
Zurn Elkay Water Solutions