Manufacturers open doors to students


Students visiting manufacturers, such as Wolverine Coil Spring (above), took part in interactive activities to spark interest in careers working with the latest technology. Courtesy West Michigan Works!

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) More than 180 manufacturers throughout West Michigan hosted student open houses and tours to showcase their facilities and career options to more than 8,000 students this month.

The visits were part of Discover Manufacturing Week 2019. While Manufacturing Week officially ran from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4, the events have spanned the month of October.

According to Talent 2025’s 2019 West Michigan Talent Assessment and Outlook, manufacturing is the largest industry in West Michigan, accounting for more than 23% of all jobs in the region. Manufacturing has added more than 45,000 jobs since 2009, a growth rate of 39.5%.

Despite its growth, the industry is facing a skills gap. With many older employees retiring and fewer young employees entering the skilled trades, companies in the region face an uphill battle to fill job openings.

The local Discover Manufacturing Week ties into the national Manufacturing Day initiative, which was created to replace outdated images of the industry with the new high-tech realities and to inspire the next generation of manufacturers.

Students this month toured a host of companies across the region, including Advanced Interiors, Bucher Hydraulics, EBW Electronics, FOGG, Gentex, G-M Wood Products, Herman Miller, JR Automation, Legacy Tool, Lubecon, The Original Print Shop, Padnos, Perrigo, Plascore, Request Foods, Royal Technologies, Tennant, Trans-Matic and more.

“Discover Manufacturing Week is critical for our long-term success,” said Steve Heethuis, vice chair of Discover Manufacturing and training director at NN Inc., an industrial manufacturer of high-precision metal and plastic components and assemblies.

“Most students have an idea what a career as a nurse, doctor, police officer or teacher is like. Discover Manufacturing Week provides a firsthand look at what a professional machinist, technician, chemist or engineer does on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

“If we can help students become educated decision-makers regarding their future college and career options, those students and our community will ultimately benefit.”

Jeff Mercer, a teacher with Tri County Area Schools in Montcalm County’s Howard City, again took his students on tour during Discover Manufacturing Week this year.

“My freshmen students were able to experience and observe modern technology and equipment at Dicastal — one of the world’s cleanest foundry environments, which is only 20 miles from their homes (in Greenville),” he said. “Dicastal could have built their beautiful plant anywhere in the world, and they chose Montcalm County. Manufacturing Week shows students that they have abundant opportunities in their own backyard.”

Shayna Carlson, work-based learning supervisor at Careerline Tech Center in Holland, said she helped coordinate tours for Ottawa County students and educators and had the opportunity to witness some of the learning that took place.

“Students continue to be wowed by businesses that are right outside their backdoors that they were unaware of,” she said. “Tours allow students to see all of the amazing businesses we have in this area … (and) every year, I learn that we are very blessed in this area with businesses that are willing to open their doors and design interactive activities to help spark interest in the younger generation.”

Rich Okoniewski, assistant principal for Allegan County Area Technical and Education Center, is a member of Allegan County’s STEM Advisory Group and coordinated setting up the visits, working to ensure every freshman in the county would go on at least two tours of employers in the area. Alongside visiting manufacturers, 1,000 students made stops on two separate days at health care, agriculture, finance and IT companies.

“It was a wonderful experience working with employers,” Okoniewski said. “They are passionate about what they do and are even more passionate about ensuring the future success of their profession.”

He said several employers told him that they also would not have known about manufacturing opportunities when they were freshmen, so the program “is a wonderful idea.”

Okoniewski said he believes the tours achieved his threefold goals of fostering “a positive relationship between education and industry,” increasing student awareness of the job market and allowing employers to showcase their facilities and career opportunities.

“Based on my survey results from our employers, they were excited about their experience and look forward to the tours again next year,” he said.

Julie Burrell, Newaygo County’s business development coordinator for The Right Place, said she “recruited manufacturers, coordinated tours and facilitated communication between schools and employers” for the event.

About 240 students in Newaygo County participated in tours this year, including from the Newaygo County Career Tech Center, White Cloud Junior High and David C. Outwin Middle School in Hesperia.

Burrell said she believes the events did their job.

“Discover Manufacturing Week is focused on exposing students to careers in manufacturing. Often, there are misconceptions around manufacturing, and this unique opportunity opened the doors of local manufacturing facilities, showcasing the many career options available,” she said.

Discover Manufacturing Week was created by Discover Manufacturing, a regional network of manufacturers founded by West Michigan Works! and The Right Place and currently led by Jon DeWys, DeWys Manufacturing chair; Heethuis, vice chair, and many other manufacturers, educators and workforce developers in the region.

More information on how to get involved in West Michigan’s Discover Manufacturing Week in future years is available by emailing

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