Feature Story: Training Them Early

March 8, 2017 No Comments
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Manufacturing Pathway at White Bear High School

by Melissa DeBilzan


toc_features50pxOn a cold winter night, the halls of White Bear Lake Area High School bustled with manufacturers, students, and their parents, all eager to learn more about manufacturing careers. The showcase was part of the school’s new Manufacturing Pathway program, designed to guide students as young as ninth grade on a path that leads to manufacturing employment or training immediately after graduation.

The first step on that pathway: awareness of industry opportunities.

“If you have a positive attitude, a good mechanical aptitude, show up for work, and are willing to learn new things, you can start out making $10 to $15 an hour in our shop,” said Jim Gaffke with Herold Precision Metals to a group of wide-eyed students checking out his exhibit table.

Like many shops, Herold is in need of more skilled workers, and he knows that numbers talk.
He held up a small, cylinder-shaped part. “After a few more years of on-the-job training, if you can make a more complex part like this, you can earn double what you started out at. Not many people can make this part because it requires a special skill set. We can teach you that skill set and help you launch a long and rewarding career.”

In 2014, Herold Precision and other local manufacturers were approached by Delroy Nyren, the technical education instructor at White Bear High School, about a novel idea: creating a path – beyond traditional technical education and even Project Lead the Way – for students to obtain high-paying, entry-level jobs as soon as they graduate.

The idea was embraced by the industry, school board, and even United Way, which provided a $250,000 grant to fund new classes, extra staff, and state-of-the-art equipment necessary to get the program off the ground. About a dozen local manufacturers stepped up to serve on the program’s advisory board.

One of the strongest recommendations from manufacturers was to purchase the same machines found in their own shops. Two Haas machining centers were rolled into the school along with Haas training panels so that students could practice programming.

To complement the new equipment, a new curriculum was developed to mirror working in a manufacturing setting. Two courses were added: Manufacturing & Applied Engineering I and II, covering the fundamentals of print reading, precision measuring instruments, CAD and modeling, bench work, and CNC machining. Career shadow experiences were built into the program to demonstrate how these skills are applied in the industry and how local manufacturing company employees developed their careers.

Additionally, a career navigator, Rich Wessels, was hired specifically to link students to manufacturing careers or training after graduation. With an ear toward manufacturing, he works with students on applications, pre-employment skills, behavioral competencies, scholarships, and other issues, to keep the pathway to manufacturing free and clear of obstacles.

“Our ultimate goal is to raise awareness of the fact that there are fantastic careers in manufacturing,” Wessels said. “From day one, we talk about the variety of careers and opportunities available, whether in engineering, machining, sales, welding, or HR.”

The Manufacturing Pathway already appears to be leading some students toward the industry. A total of 29 juniors and seniors took Manufacturing & Applied Engineering I, and 15 of those students also completed the second level of the course in 2015, the first year it was offered. Half of the students who completed both classes went onto four-year degree programs in engineering.

In 2016, those same classes were offered to freshmen and sophomores, and registration swelled to more than 70 students. Two higher-level classes were added: Precision Machining I and II, allowing students to learn the basics of CNC machining and modeling through Haas, Tormach, Solidworks, Autodesk, and Mastercam systems.

From the beginning, local manufacturers insisted the program be interactive and mimic the shop floor as much as possible.

“Moldcraft recently came in and made one of their parts using one of our Haas machines,” Wessels said. “We also have a virtual welder and try to expose students to as many experiences as possible. Earlier in the year, the instructor gave students a plastic gear with broken teeth and told them to reverse engineer it using our 3D printer. We’re really trying to provide real-life examples and meet the skill needs of the industry partners we have.”

In addition to a solid understanding of the industry, students will be able to graduate with NIMS Level 1 credentials, positioning them for additional training on the job or at a technical college. Program leaders also are working with the Minnesota Department of Labor to develop summer experiences for students as young as 16.

Jim Stephan, with Du Fresne Manufacturing in Vadnais Heights, sees value in partnering with a school district to help fill a pipeline of future workers. When he was asked to be on the advisory panel of the Manufacturing Pathway program, he didn’t hesitate.

“We have an aging workforce in our industry and, with the amount of incoming work we are fortunate to have, finding qualified workers is difficult,” Stephan said. “We interview dozens of people to find just one. Obviously, the positions in higher demand are the ones that require a higher level of skills. But we hire a lot of machine operators as well. If they have good behavioral competencies, we will train them. However, the education and training received through White Bear High School’s new manufacturing courses, together with strong behavioral competencies, should hopefully make them the first, and possibly only, candidate considered for any open positions.”
Most of the workers on his shop floor are, in fact, high school graduates who received on-the-job training for higher-skill, higher-paying jobs. A quality inspector is now a salesman; an assembler is now running the shop’s assembly operations; a welder is now a design and process engineer.

Du Fresne’s table at the career fair showcased components used by 3M and other big OEMs. Stephan picked up a metal dinosaur puzzle his company fabricated specifically for career fairs. He handed it to a student and asked, “Any idea how this was made?”

The student was silent. He listened intently as Stephan explained the process.

Someday this student may join dozens of others in the Manufacturing Pathway program, earn marketable skills, and remember Du Fresne when applying for jobs. Only time will tell.

“Roughly 60,000 students graduate from high school in Minnesota each year and about a two-thirds go to post-secondary,” Stephan said. “That leaves 20,000 students looking for work. They need to understand that there are lifelong careers in manufacturing.”

Imagine if every high school had some kind of manufacturing pathway; thousands of students would have a clear and direct route to the industry.pm_endmarkblue-e1320337140493

MELISSA DEBILZAN is a contributing writer for IntrinXec Management Inc. She can be reached at melissadebilzan@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2017 Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association. For permission to use or reprint this article please contact Nancy Huddleston, publications manager for Precision Manufacturing Journal.


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