Schools and manufacturers in this Michigan county are training the next generation of skilled workers

JACKSON, MI — Dominick Courtney’s determination has served him well.

Since grade seven, he has spent his summers learning precision machining through Machining U camps offered by the Jackson Area Manufacturers Association.

When he learned of the opportunity to earn internships and an associate’s degree as a machinist in high school through the Jackson Area College and Career Connection Early/Middle College program – JAC3 for short – he jumped at the chance, spending his after-school hours running. CNC lathes and milling machines at Orbitform.

Gathering all the skills and experience needed for his career field in high school, the Michigan Center High School junior said there was no reason to delay the inevitable entry into the workforce as soon as he would graduate and graduate through JAC3.

“Unless you want to get into senior management, you don’t need anything more than (an associate’s degree),” Courtney said. “There are a lot of companies that need machinists, so I was spoiled for choice.”

While Courtney and other participants in JAC3’s three-year program may be on the most direct path to entering the skilled trades workforce after high school, there have been many efforts to create partnerships and connections between Jackson area schools and local manufacturers. businesses in the region are looking to support an aging workforce.

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For Lomar Machine & Tool Company, this has meant hiring six school-age apprentices a year instead of only offering apprenticeships to current employees as it plans to replace a significant portion of its workforce. boomer over the next five years, Human Resources generalist Adriane Earl said.

“Not only do we have to replace them, but they take that knowledge with them,” Earl said. “We really need to bring these young kids here, not necessarily to learn how to run a mill, but to learn what these people know about our specialty.”

Skilled workers make up more than 15% of jobs in the Jackson metropolitan area — significantly more than the national average of 6.1% — making them the region’s largest employee group, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. the United States.

Randi Watts sees signs that the pendulum is swinging in favor of students who have targeted a “career path” in these types of careers — a concept more popular than when she started working at Northwest High School more than a decade ago. 20 years.

This means restricting students’ interests, especially in skilled trades fields, instead of automatically thinking that they will pursue a four-year degree after graduation. At Northwest, enrollment in its STEM Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering program has grown from 42 students six years ago to 136 this year.

“It kind of went away for a while and now it’s back with a vengeance with more of a professional tinge,” said Watts, Northwest High’s college and career readiness coordinator. “It kind of went from ‘Four-year college degree, everybody has to do it’ to now, where it’s like ‘We need workers, we need construction people’, and they don’t. maybe don’t need a four-year college degree.”

Respond and anticipate demand

While the Jackson Area Career Center has the longest history of partnering with manufacturers in the region to develop the next generation of hands-on workers through its precision machinery, welding and engineering programs, efforts have intensified to extend these opportunities to other local schools.

East Jackson High School is one of 16 Michigan schools recently selected as grant recipients for SME PRIME (Partnership Response In Manufacturing Education) – an initiative between manufacturers and educators to create cost-effective, tailored manufacturing and engineering programs in secondary schools.

The grant will help East Jackson students earn industry certifications – much like they can through the Career Center – while still in high school, as well as provide scholarships if they want to extend their training up to a four-year certification, Superintendent Steve Doerr said.

The 2021 SME PRIME Results Report shows that 89% of seniors in the program nationwide pursued a career or education in manufacturing or engineering after graduation.

At Northwest, the goal is to help students build skills to lead them to “high tech, high skill, high pay” careers, said STEM Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering instructor Albert Rossner.

The district’s program can place students on several pathways, including career center, dual enrollment at Jackson College or JAC3, Rossner said, adding that opportunities exist in a plethora of other skilled trades beyond what even these programs have to offer.

Northwest’s program has received significant guidance and financial support from Jackson-based Technique, Inc., which specializes in metal stamping prototype fabrication, industrial tube bending and laser cutting services.

Technique helped Northwest develop its program and provided people to help with classroom instruction, Rossner said, in an effort to create a pipeline of future employees.

“Probably 12 of our kids are working (at Technique) right now, part-time,” Rossner said. “We have graduates working there full-time as technicians, making over $20 an hour without a degree, or they’re working on a degree.”

The common denominator of partnerships between the private sector and public schools in Jackson County has been JAMA.

The Makers Association sought to connect with students at an early age through “I Can Make It!” camp, Machining U, and its partnerships with the Shop Rat Foundation, which offers extracurricular activities for students in grades 6 through 12 who want to learn more about tools, machines, and skilled trades.

The outreach to create a stronger employee pipeline in the Jackson area has largely been industry-driven, JAMA Vice President Olivia Steele said.

“These employers are begging to come into the schools, begging to help them in any way they can,” Steele said. “I hear from them that they are suffering. I was at a company a few weeks ago and they said half of their workforce was going to retire in the next five years. It’s a huge concern.

Is the interest there?

Students who participate in major industry programs at the Career Center have many reasons to pursue the programs in which they are enrolled.

All of Lauren Meyer’s uncles are welders, she said, prompting her to start welding in her garage at the age of 7 before eventually enrolling in the career center’s welding program.

However, she wants to be a sheriff’s deputy and is currently enrolled in the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department Exploration Program. Welding is something she can do to earn money while she earns an associate’s degree in law enforcement, she said.

“I think there will always be welding jobs,” said Meyer, a junior from Michigan Center High School. “It’s always something to fall back on if you need to.”

Ethan Randall, a senior at Concord High School, said he enrolled in the career center’s precision machining program because of his interest in math.

The program has helped him gain practical skills that he can enter directly into the job market, he said, although he is still unsure whether he will go straight into machining or s he will first get a business degree to run his own workshop.

“I learned practical skills over two years that I can use in the job market,” Randall said. “Even though I don’t like (running a CNC factory), it’s a good job to have if I want to pursue something further in the industry.”

Interest in careers in the skilled trades began to pick up after enrollment plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic when hands-on programs were relegated to a computer screen, said Dan Draper, deputy director of the vocational technical education from the career center.

JAC3 has generally maintained annual cohorts of seven to 13 students per class, while Career Center Manufacturing-based programs have averaged about 105 students per class over the past five years.

As Lomar seeks to fill entry-level machinist jobs that students can pursue after high school, Earl said the Horton-based machinery and tool company is making more direct efforts to attract them. The sweetening deal is the promise of a stable career that doesn’t require a four-year degree, while Lomar pays for them to get their journeyman card.

“We really don’t see a lot of these resumes coming in for students who want to get into manufacturing right out of high school,” Earl said. “We’re trying to change that mindset of (have to) go to college rather than just coming here.”

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