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Thursday, 10 October 2013 14:56

With skilled workers in short supply, high schools, companies team up to showcase opportunities

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Joe Moser, owner of Micro Precision in Delavan, shows a piece of equipment to high school students on a tour during the recent Manufacturing Day event. Micro Precision was one of 10 area businesses to open its doors to students to showcase manufacturing job opportunities in the area. Joe Moser, owner of Micro Precision in Delavan, shows a piece of equipment to high school students on a tour during the recent Manufacturing Day event. Micro Precision was one of 10 area businesses to open its doors to students to showcase manufacturing job opportunities in the area. Terry Mayer/staff

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- Kathryn Lieffrig and Tyler Hall already had finished preliminary blueprints on their career paths. However, their experiences Oct. 4 answered questions and cemented those plans for the teenagers.

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Lieffrig and Hall were among about 90 students from three Walworth County high schools who participated in the first Manufacturing Day activities, which included tours of local companies and a stop at Gateway Technical College’s Elkhorn campus.

The Walworth County Economic Development Alliance and Walworth County Job Center collaborated with Delavan-Darien, Elkhorn and Badger high schools and 10 businesses to offer the event.

The goal was to promote awareness of opportunities available to students, employers and educators. In particular, it allowed students to explore and better understand careers that exist in manufacturing in meeting future employment needs of area employers.

Lieffrig is a junior at Elkhorn Area High School who plans to major in industrial engineering and possibly minor in business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She said her goal was to get exposed to and broaden her spectrum of knowledge about her chosen field.

“It was neat to see how these companies implement technology and apply innovation in actual manufacturing production,” said Lieffrig, 16, who takes engineering and advanced math classes. “I learned more how all types of engineering tie into each other. It was interesting to see how all of these design teams work and how they get things through the assembly process.”

EAHS students took tours to Precision Plus, Certified Power, Hudapack Metal Treating and MedPlast. Meanwhile, Hall and the other Badger schoolmates visited Medicoil, Yunker Industries, Brunk Industries and Precision Plus.

Hall is looking to attend a technical college and get an associate degree, hoping to land a job in the welding field or something involving robotics.

“Mr. (Clint) Geissler is a great teacher, and I’ve enrolled in two of his classes, and he’s given us a lot of data about manufacturing jobs being in high demand,” Hall said. “So I wanted to see what opportunities there were at Gateway and at local businesses, to see what technology they have and what it takes to do some of these jobs on a daily basis.

“The tour made me realize just how much manufacturing relies on computers and how they lower production times,” he added. “They offer good help and training. I’m fired up because it showed me that manufacturing jobs are coming back to the U.S., and good-paying jobs.”

These comments from students should fire up educators and business leaders as they continue to seek ways of eliminating the skills gap, which they hope to achieve through events such as Manufacturing Day.

“The goal of WCEDA and our partners through these tours is to raise awareness within Walworth County about the importance of manufacturing,” WCEDA Executive Director Mike Van Den Bosch said. “Every dollar earned in manufacturing in Walworth County has a multiplier effect, with at least three dollars in additional income for suppliers to these manufacturers.

“Tourism is often seen as one of the main drivers of Walworth County’s economy, but the numbers show that manufacturing accounts for more jobs, higher wages and more output than any other industry in our county or region.”

Two of these companies are Micro Precision and Mode Industries, which joined SPX as hosts on the Delavan tour.

“This is as good of a college as you can find,” said Joe Moser, owner of Micro Precision, a 101-employee, 60,000-square-foot operation. “You develop skills between our training programs and hands-on experiences, learning everything from safety to understanding what all of the equipment does. We have a real need for manufacturing jobs in Walworth County.”

Dave Weber agreed. He is president of Mode Industries, a metal fabrication company that’s been in Delavan for 45 years.

“As you’ve all heard, we’re in a situation with a lack of talent, not a lack of workers, but talent,” Weber said. “You’re approaching the marketplace threshold, and you have to ask yourselves if you have enough skills to go into that open marketplace.”

And area educators are excited about the future and their roles in preparing their students to make those kinds of decisions.

Ross Foley is a technology education instructor at Delavan-Darien High School who took the tour.

“It’s important they experience something like this and see what’s out there,” Foley said. “Many of them have no idea what’s out their back door … this allows them to see, hear, touch and smell what a potential workplace environment is like. So this event is a bridge that connects what we teach them at the high school with local industry and manufacturing. We hear all the time about the skills gap, but they also have to learn about what we call the soft skills, about proper dress for the job, being on time and safety issues.”

Marie Collins is the community education and youth apprenticeship coordinator at Badger.

“These kids drive by these companies every day and are unaware of what’s behind those doors,” Collins said. “One of our goals is to show them that we have high-paying, high-skill jobs in our community. Many of them can begin that on-the-job training in high school or while at a place like Gateway. They can have a good career ... and we want to keep that local talent right here.”

Collins said changing ideas and stereotypes also is part of the process.

“This helps the students know that these jobs aren’t the same as when their parents or grandparents might have worked in manufacturing,” Collins said. “Many of these places aren’t the same dirty, dark, hot and physical labor they used to be. Many of them are automated and involve robotics. We want to energize the students in our program. We also would like to expand it each year and hopefully include middle school students and show them that this could be in their future.”

JoAnne Pella, career and technology education coordinator at Elkhorn Area High School, said she has had conversations with Mike Reader of Precision Plus several times during the past few years about student-to-work programs, apprenticeships and internships, so Manufacturing Day was a welcome start for what they hope becomes an annual event.

“We need young people to enter manufacturing and engineering professions,” Pella said. “We saw what Waukesha County had been doing and we said, ‘Walworth County has to get involved in something like this. Everything is in place, so we have to do this.’ And then Mike Van Den Bosch took the lead in communicating with the businesses, and we got the students more interested.

“Companies blame themselves as far as not taking the lead in partnering with the schools,” Pella added. “They need to bring the younger generation to them. And we need to get the kids motivated.”

Van Den Bosch said the initial findings prove that the event was a success.

“We conducted a survey of the students before and after they completed the tours, and the results speak to changing perceptions,” Van Den Bosch said. “We found that a good portion of the students didn’t know what types of careers were available in their own backyard, and more importantly they felt like manufacturing careers were low-wage, low-skill, dead-end jobs. The follow-up survey showed a change in those perceptions.”

Foley also said it’s important for the students to share the information and experiences with their families, because some of their parents may be unemployed or in the job market because of the tough economy.

“We want to create a video that we will make available to the entire school,” Foley said. “We were limited to 30 students, but we want to build relationships and make this a long-lasting event. If this sparks an interest in one student, then it’s worth it.”

Lieffrig is one such student.

“I applied for a scholarship to attend a camp at UW-Madison when I was in seventh grade,” Lieffrig said. “We got to tour some businesses, including one that my friend’s dad owned. I was blown away and have loved engineering ever since. The innovation and what we’re capable of, it’s incredible.”

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