Wolverine Coil Spring is one of the businesses opening its doors to students during Discover Manufacturing Week. Courtesy Jay Dunwell
(As seen on WZZM TV 13) West Michigan manufacturers will host 260 events next week to dispel misconceptions about the industry and fire up students’ interest in future jobs.
Discover Manufacturing Week, which ties into the national Manufacturing Day initiative by the National Association of Manufacturers and others, will include more than 100 employers hosting events in a 10-county region of West Michigan from Oct. 1-5.
The Discover Manufacturing network of employers, educators, and workforce and economic developers — founded by The Right Place’s Manufacturers Council and West Michigan Works! — annually produces the West Michigan version of the event.
More than 1,000 students are expected to attend 260 manufacturing open houses, demonstrations, tours and more this week and throughout October.
Jerry Hill, business solutions representative for West Michigan Works! and Discover Manufacturing coordinator, said the West Michigan event is “one of the most successful in the nation” and has seen a 300 percent growth rate in the number of events and attendees during the past three years.
He said the most important aspect of Discover Manufacturing Week is to “foster the connections” between educators and manufacturers, and teach students about modern manufacturing and its variety of apprenticeship, internship and job-shadowing opportunities.
“There will be 6 million manufacturing jobs in the next decade,” Hill said. “Two million will go unfilled. Sixty-two percent of high school students polled in Michigan said they wouldn’t even consider manufacturing as a career. We have an image problem, so our job is to make sure we show them manufacturing is pretty cool. It’s not their grandfather’s industry anymore.”
Hill said in past events, an employer let students program a CNC device to create a keychain they could keep, another showed them 3,000-degree liquid metal being poured and a third projected 2,000 lines of code onto a wall to illustrate the same skills are required to program machines as to make websites and video games.
“There are a ton of activities. Most times, the COO or principal will tell a company’s story,” Hill said. “We provide a toolkit on how to do the most effective tours. We divide them into groups and do a ‘round robin’ of the plant, talking to the CFO, financial department or showing them other things.
“We are trying to show them it’s not just occupations on the shop floor. It’s the total economy of its footprint,” including roles such as marketing, information technology or accounting.
The events can go toward meeting state career education requirements for junior high and high school students, Hill said.
“By seventh or eighth grade, kids have mostly made up their minds (about a career), and that ship has sailed. Now, everyone is recognizing that,” Hill said. “We need to talk to the kids a couple times in a couple different ways.”
Four manufacturers — Swoboda, Lacks Enterprises, Autocam Corp. and Precision Aerospace — will host a Kentwood Block Party as part of Manufacturing Week from Oct. 2-4.
Angie Huyghe, finance and human resources manager at Swoboda, said 200 students from five local high schools will do half-hour tours at each of the manufacturers to see their high-tech equipment, feel the products they make and learn about apprenticeships.
Swoboda currently offers tooling and mechatronics technician apprenticeship opportunities through Grand Rapids Community College and the state’s MAT2 program.
During lunch hour at the block party, students will be given materials to do a hands-on, timed group competition — building a pom-pom launcher — to give them a sense of what it’s like to work with limited instructions to build a product on a tight timeline.
“Sometimes, our customers don’t give us exactly what we need,” Huyghe said. “Sometimes, they give us an idea, a picture or schematics. So, this is about thinking under pressure and trial by error.”
Huyghe said the biggest challenge Manufacturing Week helps to address is the outdated perceptions of manufacturing.
“It is very clean and high tech,” she said. “I think a lot of people think it’s a manual process. But the robots are replacing the boring jobs, and we need the higher-tech skilled employees to run the robots. It’s the wave of advanced manufacturing.”
Jeff Mercer is an English language arts teacher at Tri County High School in Howard City, which is part of the Tri County Area School District covering Montcalm, Newaygo and northern Kent counties.
The principal of his school last year asked Mercer to take his “at-risk” class of freshmen to participate in a field trip through Manufacturing Week, and he jumped at the chance to give students a “future view” of the opportunities open to them through manufacturing.
The group went to Dicastal North America in Greenville, which manufactures lightweight aluminum alloy wheels for the automotive industry.
Mercer said his students were fascinated by the plant — from seeing the wheels roll off the line, to the inspections and quality checks, to the gauges and the math involved in some of the jobs.
“We were fortunate to be able to go to Dicastal,” Mercer said, describing it as a “world-class facility.”
“I think the sheer size of the machines was awesome. We talked for a good week afterward because they were very interested,” he said.
Before becoming an English teacher about 17 years ago, Mercer worked at various manufacturing companies as a quality inspector and financial consultant.
“Because I have a background in it, I was able to answer their questions,” he said. “I felt very inspired by what we were able to do and be able to bring that into my classroom. It wasn’t particularly English-related. But they did write reflections (on it).”
He said many of his students likely have manufacturing careers in their future, and without a tour such as this one, they might go into a company to apply for a job “and have no idea what is beyond HR’s door.”
“I felt very grateful for the opportunity to be able to get my kids into an area where they could see future occupations and, hopefully, that inspires them as freshmen to be able to begin thinking about their future,” he said. “It’s never too early to begin talking about the future.”
Hill said there is no cost to manufacturers and schools to participate in Manufacturing Week, other than the personnel costs, as busing is being covered by a $30,000 grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.
Discover Manufacturing also provides toolkits for educators and manufacturers on its website to help them get started in planning their involvement.