A high-tech advantage

Posted on Nov 15, 2017 :: Cover Story
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

An impromptu field trip changed Grace Dempsey’s life.

As an eighth-grader, Dempsey made a last-minute decision to attend a middle school career fair, where she happened upon a welding demonstration by Miller Electric. After watching the demo, Dempsey remembers she was one of the few students who hung around and talked to the person in the booth — a 20-minute conversation that gave her a whole new purpose when it came to school and career.

“I don’t even know why I went that day, but it was just so interesting to me to talk with him about welding and his career in manufacturing,” Dempsey says, recalling the moment. “A normal school just wasn’t for me — I got decent enough grades — but I was always more interested in building things from the ground up. I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

Fortunately for Dempsey, she soon discovered Appleton Technical Academy, the Appleton Area School District’s
manufacturing charter school based at Appleton West High School. Living in Sherwood, she open-enrolled and has been there ever since.

“I don’t think my parents were all that surprised — I always liked working on cars with my dad — when I decided to attend,” Dempsey says. “Now, I really feel like I’m working toward something.”

That something is most likely a promising career in advanced manufacturing, which is precisely the mission of Appleton Technical Academy — A-Tech for short — helping to build a well-trained and employable workforce for the region’s manufacturing economy.

“All you have to do is look at the (NEW Manufacturing Alliance) vitality study that comes out each year to see the need,” says Chris Linn, a consultant who sits on the A-Tech board of governors.

That study, conducted each year by NEWMA and released at the annual New North Summit, has consistently ranked machinists, welders, electromechanical technicians and engineers among the greatest talent needs. A-Tech provides exposure and training in all those fields.

A-Tech traces its beginnings to a series of conversations between Jared Bailin, president of Eagle Plastics, and Greg Hartjes, the former principal at Appleton West, about the workforce challenges facing manufacturers in Northeast Wisconsin. In essence, more needed to be done to grow the workforce, and the faster the better.

Those conversations sparked a round of research about, and visits to, successful technical education schools in Wisconsin and other states. In late 2013, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction kicked in a grant to help fund A-Tech students work on modern equipment in a clean, well-lit environment designed to replicate the production floor of a manufacturing facility.

Fortunately for Dempsey, the research, and the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce helped identify successful schools. About that same time, the school’s traditional “shop” classes were seeing low enrollments. What was needed was a new approach to engage students. The idea of creating a charter school within Appleton West emerged as the desired path. As a charter school, A-Tech would be in the Appleton school system, but would have the flexibility to adopt a curriculum that aligned with the expectations and desires of the manufacturing community, as well as draw in expertise from Fox Valley Technical College. Students would still have to meet state-mandated requirements for classes such as English or math, but those could be tailored to apply to the students’ manufacturing pursuits.

IOM_NOV_Coverstory_floorThe curriculum may be highly tailored, but don’t confuse that with not being challenging.

“This is hard work, it’s not for everybody,” says Paul Lindberg, the lead instructor for A-Tech. “You have to have the technical
skills, good math skills and great communication skills. If they are willing to work hard, though, we are willing to work with them to get them ready for a great career.”

Traditional shop classes use the space around the A-Tech schedule. In 2014, school district voters approved a referendum to reconfigure the technical education classroom space at Appleton West and acquire the needed equipment.

A DPI grant also helped with equipment, curriculum and supplies. That fall, 40 students enrolled in the new charter school. Since opening its doors, 41 students have graduated from the program, and enrollment has grown to 76 students across four grades.

Yet, for many involved, it still seems like one of the best-kept secrets in the region.

“We need to increase awareness and generate more community support,” says Jerry Clish, a retired manufacturer who sits on the governance board. “The manufacturers say they need these workers. We need more folks to get involved.”

The program is still young, but has shown promising results.

It boasts a 100 percent graduation rate. Of its graduates, 83 percent are studying at FVTC, another 7 percent have entered the
military, 3 percent have chosen a four-year college and 7 percent are in the workforce in their field of study.

While A-Tech replicates the floor environment of a modern manufacturer, the experience is about much more than what students learn in class. As they enter their junior and senior years, many are selected for paid internships and youth
apprentice programs.

The curriculum includes earning credits at FVTC, giving students a head start on their post-high school education.

Soren Lindstedt works on one of his latest projects during a lab at A-Tech. A junior, he also spends part of his day interning at Eagle Plastics with Grace Dempsey (right).

More than 90 percent of the credits earned through the A-Tech curriculum transfer into the technical college system.

To provide students with instruction on the latest technologies available, A-Tech is raising money to add a Computer Numerical Control machine to its shop. CNC machinist is one of the most-in-demand occupations in the New North. The A-Tech governance board has pledges for 50 percent of the machine’s $32,000 price tag. AASD will help finance the purchase once the 80 percent threshold has been reached. Eagle Plastics and NEWMA have pledged $10,000 and $5,000, respectively.

The curriculum and technology have certainly helped junior Soren Lindstedt, who says A-Tech has provided a more meaningful
route toward his career goal of becoming an engineer.

“For now, I’m going to be going to (FVTC) and getting a degree there, then I want to work for a while,” says Lindstedt, who says
he struggled in school before finding A-Tech and the right path forward. “But I also want to be an engineer. With this, I actually feel like I am working toward that future.”

As juniors, Dempsey and Lindstedt spend most of their academic day in the A-Tech classrooms working on either projects or related curriculum. Both also are interning at Eagle Plastics, gaining valuable work experience.

For senior Clay Leitner, that internship experience solidified his plans to pursue a career in manufacturing, most likely by IOM_NOV_Coverstory_sorenstarting at FVTC and then pursuing a degree from Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich.

As a senior, his experience differs from a traditional student and even from others in the A-Tech program, as he works at least four hours a day at Miller Electric.

“The great thing about A-Tech is that not only do you get to learn about things, but you get to do them right away,” Leitner says. “Now, I’m getting paid to go to school and do the things I have an interest in.”

For Lindberg, the success of students like Dempsey, Lindstedt and Leitner shows the schools can be responsive to the needs of employers as well as students who seek another path for their education.

“We’ve been able to show that (a four-year degree) is not the only way to go,” Lindberg says. “Our students can go straight into the workforce, or go to the tech and come out making as much as $70,000 and not have the debt. There are different paths.”