Like most kids, Erica Miller loved riding the merry-go-round when she was little. Her mom took her often to the one at the Columbus Zoo. Miller was always more interested in the gears than the ponies, though.
"So, the first time I'd go around, that's cool – I'd sit there and was like, ‘Oh, it's a merry go round.' Then, I'd start looking up to see how it worked," Miller says.
Since she could remember, Miller loved tinkering with things, but as a hobby. She never thought about it in terms of a career.
When Erica got to high school, she knew she wanted to work with robots, but didn't know where to start. She approached her high school counselor about her interests but didn't find much help.
"We had one counselor pushing for a four-year college, no matter what you went to talk to her about," Miller says. "Then she tried to steer me more towards a teaching route. The more I talked to her, the more it was, ‘Maybe you should be a math teacher or an art teacher.' No, that's not where my interest is."
Erica's heart wasn't in teaching. She heard of a two-year program at a local community college with a focus on engineering and brought it up to her counselor.
"You can look that up on the internet, honey," Miller says the counselor responded.
Why didn't Erica's guidance counselor consider two-year programs a viable option? Part of the answer might be in how high schools are graded.
Each year, U.S. News and World Report compiles a ranking of the "top high schools" across the country, with the scoring based on the number of kids who go off to college. The more students prepared for a four-year degree, the higher the school's ranking.
But a four-year school isn't the right fit for every student. Today, more businesses and schools are reimagining education's responsibility to connect students with careers, not just colleges.
Scot McLemore, manager of talent acquisition at Honda North America, believes industries need to talk to educators.
"Educators are going to work off what they know unless someone comes in from the industry and exposes them to the new skills that are required based on today's construction facilities," McLemore says.
Honda projects opening nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs nationally over the next decade. And it desperately needs more applicants for these positions.
McLemore visits high schools and career centers to break perceptions of manufacturing as a "dirty" industry. He wants students to understand a two-year degree can lead to stable careers.
"I think either students don't know at all – which is fine – or they have a specific idea of what success looks like from their parents, peers, or whatever," McLemore says. "What we're trying to do is to engage students and let them know that there are all types of careers and career pathways."
Miller found her own path to success with the help of an academic advisor at Columbus State Community College. After high school, she enrolled in the school's electro-mechanical engineering program. The two-year program included an internship at Honda where she caught the attention of Honda suppliers Stanley Electric.
Stanley Electric hired her shortly after graduation; now she's coming up on two years at the company.
Miller fits in on the factory floor. At the Stanley Electric plant in London, Ohio, she works her usual third shift wearing the standard navy-blue jumpsuit and ball cap, eyes covered with safety glasses, a tool bag and computer tablet at her side.
Miller's title is Technician 1 and she makes over $19 an hour fixing the machines that make headlights and taillights for car companies like Honda. Nationally, the average 21-year-old makes around $13 an hour.
This daily troubleshooting, figuring out how machines work, fulfills Miller - no matter what her high school counselor thought.
"I like what I do, and I'm good at it," she says.