In retrospect, Kendra Slis wishes she had someone to help her navigate the twists and turns of her college and career path when she was in high school.

It’s one reason that she eagerly joined the new Navigators program started by Catalyst Connection, the Pittsburgh nonprofit that provides consulting and training services to small manufacturers in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Slis is one in a team of eight ambassadors from local manufacturing companies who will connect this year with local schools and after-school programs, and participate in virtual experiences to share their career stories and inspire students to consider manufacturing.

“I think it’s great exposure for high school students to hear real-life stories from people working in the field. That’s usually what makes the ‘connection,’” says Slis, inside sales engineer for MECCO, a laser equipment supplier in Cranberry.

“Sometimes students will think they know exactly the path they’re going to travel — ‘This is what I’m going to do with my life’ — but when they get to the next step, they might discover this is not at all what I expected.”

Catalyst Connection

Photo by Scott Dietz, Catalyst Connection.

Catalyst Connection chose a diverse group of ambassadors for the pilot program who have an array of job responsibilities with varied employers, says Scott Dietz, director of workforce initiatives at Catalyst Connection. Moving forward, companies will choose their ambassadors for participation in the program, with approval by a Catalyst Connection review committee.

“We want to keep young professionals engaged in the community and give them an upward trajectory of employment and retention with manufacturing,” Dietz says. “There are a lot of accolades and opportunities for some in more senior levels in companies and this is a way for younger professionals to get nominated by employers and recognized among their peers as engaged stewards in the community.”

The program will focus on students in grades 7-12 in school districts throughout the region. Catalyst Connection has had programming for 20 years in 11 counties involving 60 or 70 school districts.

Catalyst Connection is funding the program with part of a $45,000 grant from the Arconic Foundation. Each ambassador has gone through eight hours of training and is required to participate in at least four in-person or virtual experiences this year, such as Catalyst’s summer camps, programs for teachers in August or National Manufacturing Day in October.

The first panel discussion, involving four Navigators, is scheduled for April 22 and Dietz expects 30 to 40 students to participate. Catalyst Connection invited students who are involved in its pre-apprenticeship program to be in the audience for the live discussion. The recorded event will be shared publicly and with Catalyst’s community partners.

“We constantly have a need for guest speakers, volunteers at events and so forth, so this is an opportunity to build a bench of talent, so to speak, to tap into for those experiences,” Dietz says. “Every single one of [the ambassadors] is really excited about giving back, about being able to share their story.”

Kendra Slis

Kendra Slis. Photo by Scott Dietz, Catalyst Connection.

For the next few months at least, participation will be virtual until more people are vaccinated against Covid and feel more comfortable with in-person activities, Dietz says. In time, the Navigators might host tours at their employers.

“We hope to continue to offer the program going forward, of course, and to grow the size of the cohort,” he says. “Through all of our Explore the New Manufacturing initiatives, we’re always trying to change perceptions about manufacturing. There are still some stigmas or misconceptions, and for students we’ve found there’s a general lack of awareness about what careers there are in manufacturing. We want to open their minds and give them a new perspective.”

Slis, who grew up in Johnstown, graduated from Robert Morris University with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering, a certificate in nonprofit leadership and a master’s degree in engineering management. Her first job was as a nonprofit youth program manager but she says she was drawn to manufacturing by the excitement of working in a fast-paced, evolving industry.

“It’s a way to be really involved and help my neighbors next door or someone halfway across the country,” she says. “All of the technology that we use every day, we’re going to be using AI or 3D printing into the future, so it’s cool to be at the forefront of that.”

Her bottom-line advice to students who are pondering their career choice is to take every opportunity to learn about a field and the options available.

“Always say ‘yes’ when presented with an opportunity, even if it’s something you aren’t certain about,” says Slis. “Opportunities and fields that you might not have considered, you might love — and might be a great fit for you.”