Manufacturing the Next Generation of Workforce Skills

Episode 180

April 19, 2022

As online education becomes the norm and companies like Google no longer require a degree as a job prerequisite, what will educating the manufacturing workforce look like beyond 2020? In this episode of The Kula Ring, Mike Nager, Business Development Manager for the Festo Didactic Solution Center, talks about the role of niche technical education in providing hands-on training for manufacturing technologies and how Festo Didactic is adapting its strategy into the digital space after the pandemic.

Manufacturing the Next Generation of Workforce Skills Transcript:

Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White. 

Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you doing, mate? 

Carman Pirie: I am well. And excited for today’s conversation. Look, it’s just a really fascinating topic and our guest just has a wealth of knowledge. Sometimes I feel like I know where these shows are heading as we’re charring in the intro, and then there are times like this where I’m like, “I have no idea and I’m gonna find out with everybody else.” 

Jeff White: Yeah. Well, and you know you’re going to learn something along the way. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah, yeah. 

Jeff White: And it should be noted too, we have never had as many technical glitches trying to line up this guest as with others, and I am so glad we finally managed to get Mike on the line. So, joining us today is Mike Nager. Mike is the Business Development Manager with the Solution Center with Festo Didactic. Mike, welcome to The Kula Ring. 

Mike Nager: Oh, thank you, Jeff. Glad to be here. As you mentioned, it was a long journey, but we’re finally together. 

Jeff White: Yeah. No, for sure. 

Carman Pirie: It’s a funny thing, like just as advanced as technology gets, it’s still hard to get a podcast platform that’s actually reliable, or like you can’t get a toaster that lasts any more than two or three years. 

Jeff White: Oh, I know. 

Carman Pirie: I mean, these problems ought to be solved. 

Jeff White: One would think, yeah. I mean, 100-plus episodes in and we’re still having issues sometimes. Oh well-

Carman Pirie: If any of our listeners find themselves having technical issues with a podcast every once in a while, well, don’t-

Jeff White: Take heed. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. You’re not alone. 

Mike Nager: Don’t despair. 

Carman Pirie: Well, Mike, I have so many questions I don’t even know where to start. I mean, Festo Didactic is really about just kind of comprehending the pace of change that our manufacturers are facing is incredibly rapid and getting faster every day, and you’re really in the business of helping people keep up with that. How does a workforce keep up with that? I mean, at its core, that’s what you do, isn’t it? 

Mike Nager: Yeah. Yeah. It definitely is. So, Festo Didactic’s mission is to partner with technical schools, and universities, and high schools, to really provide a hands-on learning experience of manufacturing technologies all over the world, so we’re the largest player in this niche of technical education. We have roughly 800 people dedicated around the world to support technical education and really bring it to the forefront in a very tangible way for students and instructors to see this technology. It’s not enough to have a theoretical book learning understanding of keeping an assembly line running. You have to actually know how to keep that assembly line running. That’s what we provide for the students. 

Carman Pirie: I mean, look. The majority of our listeners tend to be marketers, and we really just see that the marketing connect is fairly obvious, but just so that our listeners understand, how direct a connect is there between Festo Didactic and Festo, people that can actually come in and sell you industrial automation? Because you folks are your own kind of entity in some way, but you do have a connection. 

Mike Nager: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. As you mentioned, our sister company, Festo Automation, is a manufacturer of industrial controls used worldwide. Approximately 20,000 people working, developing these cutting-edge controls, and the Didactic division works very closely with our colleagues in that sector, because they have a lot of domain knowledge of how to produce high-quality components and equipment at volume quickly and flawlessly. 

We can pull from them their knowledge, and bring it into the students’ realm, and as you mentioned, if you have sales and marketing people listening in, anything to do with education is an automatic public relations item. A piece of content, whenever we have a sale it’s just not a sale of equipment, it is influencing young people or people that are reskilling themselves for these new jobs and very often can make headlines in the local papers. 

Carman Pirie: It’s like to me, people think of technical education or technical resources on a website or whatever as educational content almost as being once they’re doing that, they’re striping. I mean, this is like… We have a whole separate-

Jeff White: They brought the educational component and they’re done. Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah, but this is just a whole other level, obviously, of a way of thinking about how to shape a market over a long period of time. Festo Didactic’s been in business since 1965. It was a long gameplay then and it continues to be, and I just think it’s really something interesting for marketers to consider and how other manufacturers and organizations can kind of live into this idea in some way. I mean, I have no idea how our listeners can take what we’re talking about and turn it into practical ideas for them, but that’s where the magic happens. It’s not up for us to connect all those dots. But anyway, so I think it’s just a fascinating thing that you’re doing. 

Mike Nager: Yeah. Yeah, so I would say from a marketing standpoint probably for any company, it falls into the good corporate citizen bucket. If you work with your educational providers in the region by hosting students that come in to see your facility, if you have an impressive facility, if you sponsor some sort of event that can lead to similar sorts of public relations and outreaches at a smaller level, but in a very similar manner. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. It may not shape the market quite the same way as it does training people on your equipment, however. 

Jeff White: For sure. You’ve been around since 1965. Obviously this must have been spun off out of the main company by seeing a need. Where did it start and what does it look like now? 

Mike Nager: Sure, so it all started in Germany. We’re located in Southern Germany, which is well known for its automotive sector of manufacturers, so it’s no accident that we’re located close to that because that’s a major customer base for us. Since then, it’s spread all over the world on both sides of the business. We have a presence in over 100 countries all over the world, and that’s the same on automation and on the Didactic side, so it grew out of a need to teach people these technical details of products and processes, especially in the manufacturing sector, and it grew into its own business worldwide because of that. 

Our U.S. headquarters for Didactic is located in New Jersey, Central New Jersey, and we’re servicing customers all over North America out of that location. 

Jeff White: The primary product I guess you could say are these solution centers that you work with schools, or factories, or others to implement. What does that look like and how does that come together? 

Mike Nager: Yeah, so we have a pretty diverse product line. We have what we call tabletop trainers for very basic education, so these are something you put in front of you right on your desk and you could start to learn about sensors or controllers used in manufacturing, and we have that for almost every major branch of technical education. Mechanics, electrical, HVAC, water treatment. You name it, we have it. The division I work for, the solution center, works on very customized projects, and what we do is we design a learning factory, a scaled-down assembly factor that can fit into a moderate-size classroom or lab, that actually performs as a factory would in real industry. 

We use all the brand name controllers, all the robot manufacturers out there, and we provide an integrated system for it. It generally will fill a 20-foot by 30-foot room and this often is a capstone project for the students during their final year. 

Carman Pirie: It’s interesting to me just on that brand connectivity part that as you bring these solutions to life, that you’re not exclusive to Festo, however. You’ll spec competitive products where it makes sense for the educational environment, obviously. But obviously, you still go to market as Festo Didactic. I like that you can kind of seem like you can have your cake and eat it too here, Mike. 

Mike Nager: In the manufacturing industrial world, there has been a big push from the end-users to wanting open standards and connectivity, and being able to use best of breed, so they want to be able to use the best controller from Manufacturer A, the best sensor from Manufacturer B, so on and so forth, without much friction in between.

Forty years ago all the big control manufacturers, industrial control, tried to make one big house and say, “Okay, we’ll outfit your whole family. You have to buy everything from us.” And manufacturers and sellers like that concept, but the users didn’t like quite as much. There’s been a megatrend towards open standards and being able to use best of breed, and that’s exactly what we’re doing in our learning factories using best of breed, so we find the best industrial camera, or the one that has the biggest commercial footprint. Sometimes those two things are the same. And that’s what we include, and then when students learn on that industrial camera and bring it out to industry, there’s a high chance that you’re going to see that out there, and that does everyone a world of good. 

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Carman Pirie: Mike, I’m assuming most of the learning centers are installed in educational environments, institutions, but to what extent do you work directly with manufacturers to support learning environments for onboarding new workforce or what have you? 

Mike Nager: Oh, yeah. That’s a great question. The majority of our sales, and I would say that would probably be north of 90%, are to educational facilities of some sort. That’s how they’re classified, nonprofit educational entities. The other percent, let’s say it’s 5%, would be directly to a large manufacturer, so think of a worldwide manufacturer like Nestle Foods, or Volkswagen, or a BMW, that has the internal strength to have their own training center. We would work with them to design the training centers and also the curriculum around what their particular application is. The tricky thing about manufacturing is there are many different shades of manufacturing, so there are different skill sets needed in food processing than there is in metal bending, or in automotive assembly, so you have to be very flexible and be able to work with them. 

We have contracts with some of those big global names that everyone knows to provide that sort of training and equipment for their own training purposes. But yeah, it’s a great question. 

Carman Pirie: I just can’t help but think, especially in this environment where we know that the supply chain dynamics are changing, factory location, or relocations will probably be accelerating as the China-U.S. relationship continues to be challenged, one assumes a new factory being spun up today is probably going to be a lot closer to the smart factories of tomorrow than what some of the workforce was previously trained to do. It all seems like a pretty-

Jeff White: It’s a bit of a perfect storm, isn’t it? 

Carman Pirie: Perfect storm of events for somebody like you, Mike. 

Mike Nager: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, definitely. We’ve been watching this, what we refer to sometimes as reshoring of manufacturing. Bringing some operations back from overseas or from other countries where they left in the 1990s, even before the COVID crisis hit this was another one of the macro trends that was happening, and this is just going to accelerate it. I mean, the American public I think was quite shocked, and probably the Canadian public as well, I would imagine, to find that you can’t find Clorox wipes six months later on the shelf, because there’s a certain material in Clorox bleach wipes that is not produced domestically, or in the quantities that are needed, and it’s like, “What?” 

I was at my Costco over the weekend. They have a sign in the front still listing everything that they’re out of, so you don’t have to go to the back to find the paper towels, because they’re not here, or the Clorox wipes, and this is six months after the start of this, so I think it’s a great wakeup call. Every day, I hear about more and more manufacturers locating in the U.S., right? And automation is a big portion of it. We’re 30 years from 1990 now and you can do a lot more with automation than you could 30 years ago, and once you take that low cost, low skilled labor component out of the equation, then manufacturing can be anywhere. 

Carman Pirie: And man, so much of that gets lost in the political discourse, of course. I mean, it’s almost like the manufacturing jobs are talked about as though they’re low-tech, blue-collar, right? 

Jeff White: Yeah. When nothing could be further from the truth. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. It’s one area where… Well, I mean so many areas, I suppose, the political discourse doesn’t match reality, but man is it ever the case here. I will tell you, Mike, you said that Canadians would be shocked, I think it’s hard to get Canadians to express shock at anything. We may be mildly surprised or something like that. 

Jeff White: I will say this, though. I was in Costco on the weekend and they had the first shipment of Clorox wipes I’ve seen since March available at the front of the store and people were literally scrambling to get them. Riffing on that topic, given that the learning environments that Festo Didactic produces are in-person learning, obviously, manufacturing is considered an essential service-

Carman Pirie: Well, you mentioned the importance of hands-on. 

Jeff White: Yeah, exactly. How has, if at all, the pandemic shifted the focus of what you may build in the future? 

Mike Nager: Yeah, so we do have a full portfolio of products and a portion of that was digital learning, so being able to be dispensed online, and that was growing at a nice pace. This COVID crisis really spiked our energy level in that digital learning area, so now it’s a part of the core strategy. Okay, how can we deliver this content in a remote learning environment, and also where the students may not be all in one place. They might not be able to go into the school, so we’re developing our curriculum, the knowledge portion, into nuggets that can be encapsulated into a delivery vehicle that can be digital, like we’re doing right now. And also developing smaller-scale pieces of this equipment that might be able to be shipped from student A, to student B, to student C, where they can then have that hands-on portion of working with it and then when things are safe and okay to go back, they can work on the big machine with all the pieces put together. 

It’s definitely shaken up everything. Even our business. 

Jeff White: I have to think too, It’s one of those few occasions where you look at technology like virtual reality or augmented reality and say yes, there is an absolute fit here for this kind of thing. Is that being explored, as well? 

Mike Nager: Yeah. Yeah, so we have both virtual and augmented reality that we’re retooling now to go online, and just as a little bit of a side note, in March, when all our schools were starting to close down in the U.S. and students were being sent home, we offered for free for six months our entire digital portfolio to any school that was not yet set up on the digital platform, because they were really scrambling because they had to send their students home and they had nothing to offer. 

We just opened it up and provided a six-month license free of charge with no commitment, and I don’t have the exact number, but it was in the several hundreds of schools that took advantage of that, so we were kind of happy to do our part because it was really scary back then. We didn’t know exactly how bad it was gonna get. But there’s also a little bit of a PR component to that, too, as well. We didn’t give a 10% discount, we offered it for free. We’re proud of that. 

Carman Pirie: It’s impressive that it was able to scale to that, that quickly, as well. Several hundred schools coming on at once, it’s not nothing. 

Jeff White: Yeah, it speaks to the extensibility of the platform. For sure. 

Mike Nager: Yeah, we had some guys that were very busy in our office last two or three months to support that. 

Jeff White: Yeah, there’s two or three IT guys that would like a word. 

Mike Nager: But yeah. Yeah, we’re looking at that as we move towards the future, and the other trend is people are looking at less formal education models now, looking more at certificates, so how is Festo Didactic supporting that? We partner with well-known organizations, like NIMS, which is the society of metalworking people, and we come up with curriculum and certificates that they certify, so if you want to be a machine tool operator, you get the stamp that has Festo and NIMS on it, and we have several of those types of partnerships around, because people are looking to make it more modular education. Not you have to go to one place for four years and you get your piece of paper. Everyone just wants skills. 

I think it was Google that just recently made a big announcement that they took off a university degree as a prerequisite for any position. You do not have to show that you have a four-year degree or six-year degree or whatever degree to get a job at Google. What you do have to do is show that you’re proficient at the specific thing that you say that you know well and can get done. Go in and get tested and you can get the job. It doesn’t matter how you acquired that knowledge. There are big changes afoot, even in education. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s hard to even be tangentially connected to a conversation about education and not understand that it’s changing rapidly, and our view of formal education is changing rapidly. I must say, though, it kind of surprises me a bit, like to have that direct connection between the manufacturing world and what can often seem like a very… just an innovative HR practice by a leading tech firm like Google, right? 

Jeff White: Yeah. 

Mike Nager: Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: So, that’s really just bringing it to life, I think. 

Jeff White: Certainly puts a dent in the message of universities that this is the only way forward, you know? 

Mike Nager: Yeah. Especially in the U.S. We’ve had our issues with universities, and the cost of them, and how available they are to the entire population, and this has not been a good time, let’s put it that way. In retrospect, it will probably be like, “Okay, this is the turning point that things started to change.” An inflection point. We’ll just have to see, but yeah, it’s a little bit of an unknown world, what’s gonna be in place 10 years from now, I think. 

Jeff White: Yeah. 

Carman Pirie: But it is certainly somewhat easy to see how the learning centers that you create will have a part on it going forward. It’s a really exciting thing that you’re doing and there’s just so many different ways that I feel it could evolve to meet where it’s going. 

Jeff White: Oh, I know. I mean, you couldn’t really be in a better time in a better place to be this far ahead of the game in terms of providing educational content, both physical and virtual. I mean, the question I have, I know that this might be putting you on the spot a little bit, but if you did have some suggestions or thoughts for people who are more in that more traditional marketing and sales apparatus within manufacturers, how can they get started with this and begin to be associated in such a positive way with the workforce skills challenge or some other large, real impediment to manufacturing right now? 

Carman Pirie: That’s not putting Mike on the spot at all. 

Mike Nager: Oh. Yeah, not at all. I actually appreciate that question, because you know, we work with a lot of our sister-like companies of a different ilk. In the industrial world, like many others, there’s a combination of customers and competitors, and combinations of those two things together, and partners, so every manufacturer is facing and seeing the same thing that we do at Festo Didactic. They’re all developing cutting edge products. They’re trying to develop cutting edge products. And the workforce is always one of the top three issues every survey. The workforce never drops below three. It’s usually number one or number two. Sometimes number three. 

Many of those manufacturers have seen what we’re doing, and they come to us quite regularly. They share with us what they’re working on, what they’re product roadmap looks like, because they know how important it is to have their products influence, so I would say almost every major manufacturer knows who we are, of the components that we’re using, and actually also helps and assists us in creating that curriculum and that content. It’s very hard for a single manufacturer to do it alone. Sometimes, they’ll try to donate old equipment into a school, unsold stuff, but instructors don’t know how to operate it, there’s no assembly manual, there’s no lesson plan, and it basically usually just sits and doesn’t get incorporated unless you have a real gung ho professor or instructor. But that’s the exception, not the norm. 

Many of those manufacturers know what we’re doing. We purchase products from them, so we’re a customer. We ask them for a little bit more of a discount, because it’s for education, and they’re usually happy to work with us. 

Carman Pirie: I think it’s a good challenge for marketers listening to this that for maybe if you’re working in a… Maybe a smaller, midsize manufacturing operation, right? With a regional focus. That draws the workforce from a smaller pool, just how can you take a little bit of the secret sauce that Mike’s talked about her today and-

Jeff White: Yeah. It’s not just about providing employment but providing empowerment through education. 

Carman Pirie: Yeah. Exactly. The solution won’t be the same for everybody, but I think it’s the thought experiments that can be launched from this episode are significant. 

Jeff White: Yeah, for sure. Mike, what’s next for Festo Didactic? 

Mike Nager: There’s always a next step for us, so we try to stay right on the cutting edge of manufacturing, so right now, we’ve already implemented robotics, and mobile robotics, and virtual reality, and artificial reality, right at this particular moment, and next month it could be something different, but we’re looking at blockchain and how does blockchain influence manufacturing, and at what appropriate level could we get students involved in that. Last year, the last thing that we launched was cybersecurity. How do you implement cybersecurity on the manufacturing floor? It all tends to be technical and a little bit geeky, but that’s our business, so we’re proud to do it. 

Carman Pirie: Well, I thank you for sharing it with our listeners today. It’s been a real pleasure. 

Mike Nager: Yeah. Thank you very much. Really honored to be on your show. 

Jeff White: Well, thanks again. 

Announcer: Thanks for listening to The Kula Ring, with Carman Pirie and Jeff White. Don’t miss a single manufacturing marketing insight. Subscribe now at That’s

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Mike Nager

Business Development Manager

Mike Nager is the Business Development Manager for the Festo Didactic Solution Center. For the last six years, Mike has worked at Festo Didactic to develop training programs and equipment for colleges to use in educating the next generation of manufacturing professionals. Mike holds a Bachelor’s degree in electronic engineering from the University of Scranton. He was named a 2020 Top 10 IIoT Influencer by Onalytica and has worked with hundreds of American manufacturers over the last 20 years. He is currently writing a book titled entitled “The Smart Students Guide to Smart Manufacturing and Industry 4.0.”

The Kula Ring is a podcast for manufacturing marketers who care about evolving their strategy to gain a competitive edge.

Listen to conversations with North America’s top manufacturing marketing executives and get actionable advice for success in a rapidly transforming industry.

About Kula

Kula Partners is an agency that specializes in maximizing revenue potential for B2B manufacturers.

Our clients sell within complex, technical environments and we help them take a more targeted, account-focused approach to drive revenue growth within niche markets.


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