Students see advanced manufacturing firsthand

Discover Manufacturing Week connects 4,000 learners with makers in the region.
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Students from Northview Next Career Center visited Wolverine Coil Spring for a plant tour. Photo by Discover Manufacturing

More than 40 West Michigan manufacturers opened their doors to over 4,000 high school and middle school students as part of Discover Manufacturing Week earlier this month. 

A mix of in-person and virtual tours held Nov. 1-12 showcased company facilities and introduced students to an array of career opportunities. 

Discover Manufacturing Week is an annual event that’s part of the nationwide Manufacturing Day movement, created to dispel outdated images of the industry and to inspire the next generation of manufacturers.

Discover Manufacturing is a regional network of hundreds of manufacturers who are committed to addressing the short- and long-term talent needs of West Michigan’s manufacturing industry. Together with partners in education and training, workforce development and economic development, the group is training the current workforce, promoting the industry to the future workforce, and communicating opportunities and best practices.

According to The Right Place, the manufacturing industry accounts for 15% of the workforce in West Michigan. 

“Manufacturing has a critical role in the West Michigan economy,” said Jerry Hill, industry council lead for Discover Manufacturing Week. “Our region includes more than 2,500 companies representing industries ranging from biopharmaceuticals and medical devices to food processing and automotive. These employers are looking to hire smart, hands-on learners.” 

The West Michigan Works! 2021 Hot Jobs List features 55 job titles in the high-demand manufacturing industry. The median wage for mid-career workers in these positions ranges from $15 to $58 per hour.

“I encourage all students to participate in Discover Manufacturing Week. It’s a great opportunity to get to know businesses in your neighborhood and identify careers you may not have ever heard of,” said Shayna Carlson, OAISD-CTE work-based learning supervisor, Careerline Tech Center in Holland. “Manufacturing has career opportunities for students in every single pathway, so no matter what you are interested in, there are opportunities to get involved. 

“Being able to see all the innovative projects that are happening right outside their back door is a huge eye-opener for students to all the possibilities right here in West Michigan.” 

More than 3,000 students participated in 10, 30-minute virtual sessions, each featuring two manufacturers highlighting various job opportunities, followed by question-and-answer sessions. 

“I learned that manufacturing isn’t as boring as I once thought. There is a whole community of people that work with one another every day. It is something special to be a part of,” said Amarra Kuiper, a freshman at Ostego High School. “I enjoyed learning about real-world jobs. I don’t usually hear a lot about jobs in general, and it’s hard to just listen about them. It was great that I got to see videos and pictures, so I had a better mental image.”

Nearly 1,000 students toured manufacturers in person. ArtiFlex Manufacturing again was one of the host sites this year.

Jocelyn Hodack, who works in human resources training and development at ArtiFlex, took groups of students from Forest Hills Northern High School and Innovation Central High School on tours at one of the company’s tooling plants, at 2066 Bristol Ave. NW in Walker.

She said during the one-hour tour, students got to see every step of the process — design/engineering simulations, machining, setting up/programming of the dies, assembly, testing and quality control. 

Hodack said students asked great questions and seemed to be engaged, and some asked about summer job and apprenticeship opportunities. She said Discover Manufacturing Week isn’t primarily about seeing immediate talent attraction results but about changing perceptions to ensure the industry has a future.

On top of that, she said, employees get as much out of the experience as they give.

“It actually does something for us internally. It’s rewarding to be able to talk about your passion and what you do at your company and what your contributions are, and to be able to share that with somebody else and leave a positive impression,” Hodack said. “Our employees are excited when students come to tour.”

Jay Dunwell, president of Wolverine Coil Spring, said he has not lost his enthusiasm for giving these tours to students, even though he has been doing it for years.

For Discover Manufacturing Week, his company hosted a group of students from Northview Next Career Center, providing them hands-on opportunities to learn about coils and springs and all the various applications they have in everyday consumer products, such as in vehicle door handles and dishwashers.

“We try and give them a good flavor of the diversity of career opportunities that manufacturing offers,” he said. 

The tour took students from the front office to assembly to production and concluded with an activity in the break room where students got to create mock torsion, compression and extension springs by winding pipe cleaners around wooden dowels. They also got to churn out real metal springs by taking CNC equipment through a coding sequence.

Dunwell said manufacturing had a tight labor market before COVID-19 and now it’s tighter, making him even more passionate about touting the importance of manufacturing in West Michigan.

“We think these career opportunities are a lot like rock climbing,” he said, noting people start in one role in the company and then they move up, and many of Wolverine’s employees have worked there for years and now their children also work there. 

“It’s a healthy sign that the parents are promoting these career opportunities to their next generation,” he said.

Dunwell and Hodack both said their companies offer year-round opportunities for young people to tour their facilities and learn more about manufacturing careers.

“It’s a great way to expose students (to manufacturing) in a very hands-on learning environment, to help them have a better understanding in ways that they might not be able to appreciate inside a classroom,” Hodack said.

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