It takes a village to build a better workforce.
That’s the approach they are taking in Sheboygan County, where area manufacturers and the Sheboygan Area School District have collaborated to create Red Raider Manufacturing, in which students explore career interests in a real-world setting while learning skills that will prepare them to succeed day one at many of the region’s manufacturers.
Earlier this spring, the district broke ground on a $4.3 million project creating new technology centers with front-line equipment and tools to support the enhanced curriculum at Sheboygan North and South high schools.
A grand opening for the Johnsonville and Kohler Advanced Technology centers is set for October.
“I think we all got tired of hearing people say that we don’t have enough skilled labor,” says Joseph Sheehan, superintendent of the Sheboygan Area School District. “We decided to build a pipeline for those technical jobs, to both help people realize what they are and to train them.”
The origins of the Red Raider Manufacturing initiative can be
traced to an eye-opening intersection of workforce and educational demographics.
Reviewing data on graduates from the Sheboygan high schools, Sheehan and other education leaders saw that while two-thirds of their graduates continued their education at a four-year college or university, only one-third of them finished within five years. Many left school after a year or two, and while a lot of those would pursue their interests at area technical schools, they had lost both time and money pursuing career options that were not a good fit.
Meanwhile, the scarcity of skilled labor vital to the continuing success of the Sheboygan area’s manufacturing sector continues to accelerate as baby boomers age out of the workforce and fewer young workers take their place. As of April, there were more than 3,000 unfilled jobs in Sheboygan County.
Both sides needed to change the equation, and the concept of Red Raider Manufacturing was born. Working with Lakeshore Technical College, the high school technical education curriculum was updated to reflect the skills needed to succeed in a modern manufacturing facility.
Red Raider Manufacturing curriculum aligns with Lakeshore Technical College and Milwaukee School of Engineering, allowing for multiple college credit opportunities in both advanced manufacturing and mechanical/electrical engineering.
“We are looking out for the future — we have to develop a good pipeline of talent to deal with the demographic bubble we are facing,” says Robert Krause, vice president of operations at Vollrath Co. “This can help us not only deal with that, but help the community to keep growing.”
But the curriculum solved just one part of the problem. Much of the equipment students worked with in these classes had not been updated since the 1960s. Area manufacturers stepped up with nearly $3 million in funding for new facilities and equipment.
The technology centers will be located at the new entrances of both Sheboygan North and South high schools in 12,400 square feet of additional space that will house state-of-the-art manufacturing and engineering equipment available to students.
Businesses contributing $100,000 toward the project include American Orthodontics, Bemis Manufacturing Company, Lakeshore Technical College, Masters Gallery Foods, Plastics Engineering Company, Rockline Industries, Sargento Foods Inc., Sheboygan Chevrolet-Chrysler, Van Horn Auto Group and Vollrath Co. Johnsonville Sausage and Kohler Co. contributed more than $500,000 and those company’s names will appear on the technology centers.
“I think that speaks to the unique situation we have in Sheboygan County, where we have a number of successful, family-owned companies that will invest this way,” Sheehan says. “This is really an exciting partnership with our business community.”
It’s no coincidence the new centers will be located at the front of the schools for the community to see whenever they enter the building. Parents and community members need to see it as well as the students, to gain a better understanding of the modern manufacturing workplace, supporters say.
“It’s a high traffic area that will be seen by parents and the community whenever they enter the building,” says Jason Bull, principal at Sheboygan North. “We need to do a better job of communicating what those jobs are really about.”
The initiative has also established lofty metrics that will be used to determine the program’s success, such as:
• Increasing the number of students that are taking technical education courses from 400 to 800 in the next two years, as well as the number of college credits earned through the technical education department from 100 to 150 credits annually.
• Increasing the percentage of graduates entering technical college after graduation by 50 percent during the next two years, from 50 to 75 annually.
• Increasing the total number of SASD graduates gainfully employed by industry partners by 50 percent during the next two years.
The work is not finished once the new facilities are constructed. An oversight committee composed of educators and industry experts will meet regularly to ensure the curriculum stays current and to regularly assess the program’s performance and recommend change where needed.
“This is really a change in the foundation of education with the way we are going to be giving them real world experience,” says Mike Trimberger, principal at Sheboygan South. “They will see what it really is and be able to decide that’s what they are interested in. That’s a good thing.”