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For the Manufacturing Industry, School Is in Session

Dylan Rigdon’s grandfather and father worked in manufacturing their whole lives, but during the Great Recession in the late 2000s, their livelihoods took a hit. His grandfather lost his job. His father saw his paycheck cut.

By the time Rigdon started his freshman year at Seymour High School in Indiana, he wasn’t a big fan of manufacturing. But that changed when Rigdon was introduced to Owl Manufacturing, a student-run manufacturing business based out of the traditional high school.

“When I got to this class, it kind of opened my eyes,” Rigdon, now a senior, says. “Manufacturing is not a bad word anymore. It’s good work to go into. It’s not dirty work. You can get a high-paying job.”

Rigdon’s attitude is one that the manufacturing industry wants to see more often. U.S. manufacturing will need nearly 3.5 million manufacturing workers by 2025, but it’s projected that 2 million of those jobs will go unfilled due to a proficiency gap,according to a 2015 study. These jobs tend to pay well: In 2017, the average manufacturing worker in the U.S. earned more than $27 per hour. The average hourly wage for all occupations in May 2017 was $24.34.

More and more, schools and companies have stepped in to attract students to manufacturing and teach necessary skills, including 3D printing. But Seymour High School has taken it a step further by opening up a manufacturing business at the school itself, where students learn on the job. “We’re trying very hard to build a foundation of the understanding of manufacturing, of what it takes to be a good employee or a good business owner,” says Curt Schleibaum, a technology manufacturing teacher at Seymour High School.

Owl Manufacturing, named after the school’s mascot, launched in 2016 and now has 43 students, up from 17 last year. At the company, students produce T-shirts, use 3D printing to create trinkets and do laser engraving to make nametags, selling all these products to local stores as well as the school. As Christmas gets closer, Owl is making ornaments with its laser for a local tree farm.

“They’re having fun making the items hands-on, and they’re seeing that there’s definitely more to manufacturing than just the stereotypical ‘I want to build an assembly line,’ so to speak,” Schleibaum says.

The jobs at Owl Manufacturing are varied. Alejandro Mejia, a junior, works with the laser engraver and trains new student workers. Jeren Keller, a senior, is learning about customer service and communication.

Last year, Rigdon served as president of Owl Manufacturing.”It’s not just a manufacturing class,” he says. “It’s giving you life skills, business skills, work skills, personal skills. It touches bases on everything.”

Owl’s objectives go beyond the doors of Seymour High School. In his State of the State address in January, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said he considers workforce development “the defining issue of the decade.” Two months later, he signed an executive order to create the Office of Work-Based Learning and Apprenticeship. One of its goals is to build a framework for work-based learning through Indiana, including in schools.

Darrel Zeck, executive director of the new office, says programs such as Owl Manufacturing are critical to Indiana’s manufacturing industry. He says manufacturing accounts for about 30 percent of the state’s total gross product, the highest of any sector.

“A lot of folks consider those to be low-paying, dirty jobs instead of very high-tech, high-wage careers, so introducing kids at an early age to a program like this, in particular for manufacturing, is very critical,” Zeck says. “It’s an excellent opportunity to have future engineers, business folks, marketing folks, supply and logistics. There’s all kinds of careers that obviously go along with just manufacturing and working in a manufacturing facility.”

These efforts are happening across the U.S. In Massachusetts, Agawam High School started an advanced manufacturing program in September to fill the gap left by local manufacturing workers retiring. The initial program has 27 students.

“We’re trying to light a fire to create an interest in the area of more hands-on learning and more hands-on types of jobs, which kids really don’t know today,” says Steve Lemanski, superintendent of Agawam Public Schools.

Christophe Huestis, who teaches in the advanced manufacturing program, says the students didn’t realize what jobs manufacturing has to offer.

“They’ve heard of 3D printing, but they didn’t realize it was a career path, and they didn’t realize that it was actually part of manufacturing,” he says. Huestis adds that many companies have trouble hiring for other roles, such as programming and business, because of the difficulty finding people with manufacturing knowledge.

Businesses also work to attract and educate high school students. Guilford Apprenticeship Partners, a consortium of companies in North Carolina, started accepting manufacturing apprentices in 2016 after local companies couldn’t fill skilled positions. Apprentices, who are recruited in high school, start the four-year program by attending high school in the morning and working for a manufacturing employer in the afternoon. After graduating high school, apprentices receive free tuition at the local two-year college while working a full-time manufacturing job. They receive pay for both the job and class time.

There are now 77 apprentices, says Todd Poteat, chairman of GAP and a founding member of the apprentice program. Poteat, along with other sources interviewed, says a hurdle to attracting people to manufacturing work is the stereotypes associated with it – that it’s dirty and physically difficult.

GAP combats this with education. After GAP presents its program to local high schools in the fall, interested students and their parents or guardians follow up with a visit to a manufacturing company. That way, they can see what the job looks like, Poteat says.

“Parents don’t know what manufacturing is anymore,” he says. “They don’t know what today’s manufacturing looks like, and that there are these fields that are out there that are highly lucrative for their sons and daughters.”

Phillip Fuller, who was recruited his junior year of high school, is in his third year of GAP’s apprentice program. Before this, he had never considered manufacturing as a career, but the promise of good pay and free college convinced him to give it a try.

Fuller now works at Bright Plastics in Greensboro, North Carolina, where Poteat also works, as a process technician. He programs machines to create plastic parts for medical equipment, kayaks and other uses. After Fuller completes the apprenticeship, he plans to continue his education with a bachelor’s degree in engineering.

He says working in manufacturing will help him in his future mechanical engineering career. “It’s given me the hands-on knowledge,” Fuller says. “A lot of engineers don’t really know the process of making the parts that they design. So I’ll have that background knowledge before I go on as an engineer. That way, it’ll help me do my job better.”

Poteat says manufacturing programs offer an alternative to expensive four-year university degrees. In May, U.S. national student loan debt reached an all-time high of $1.5 trillion.

“We’ve pushed this college-for-all mentality, and we forgot about vocational education,” Poteat says. “It’s not for everyone, but it’s another option compared to traditional four-year college, which is not for everyone, either.”

Lemanski of Agawam Public Schools says offering manufacturing to students gives them skills in a field hungry for workers.

“We have to train them for what the world needs,” he says. “These are providing some skilled opportunities where they have a real chance to grow and have a career in it.”

Manufacturing programs seem to have far-reaching effects that could start to address the worker shortage. At Owl Manufacturing in Indiana, three graduates out of Owl’s total of 12 are working in manufacturing, Schleibaum says. A few graduates are pursuing engineering degrees that are financially supported by manufacturers.

Rigdon says student interest in related classes such as civil engineering and introductory manufacturing has jumped since Owl.

Hunter Heckman, a senior at Owl Manufacturing, says his work has led to a manufacturing job offer in nearby Franklin, Indiana.

“The skills that we learn actually can transition directly into a good-paying job or career,” he says. “Manufacturing, when a lot of people think of it, they think of dirty jobs in factories or something, but a lot of the jobs in manufacturing, they actually employ new technologies that aren’t that dirty, nasty factory that people think of. It’s a really nice, high-paying job in a clean facility.”

Read the full article in U.S. News & World Report.