When the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance launched its Excellence in Manufacturing/K-12
Partnerships Awards five years ago, Ann Franz questioned how many years the organization would be able to sustain them.
If the winners and nominees from 2016 are any indication, the director of NEWMA can breathe easy.
“It’s exciting that the quality of this year’s recipients is as good if not better than it was the first year,” Franz says.
The awards recognize collaborations between manufacturing and education. With one out of four people working in the state’s manufacturing industry, keeping focused on the future is key, says Franz.
Franz points out that schools need manufacturing because it employs many and helps keep the state’s economy vital, and the manufacturing industry needs schools to educate future talent. “It’s critical because they need each other.”
Sheboygan Area School District’s Red Raider Manufacturing program, winner of the Education Innovation award, exemplifies this. It started simply in 2014, with a realization that schools and industry should work together to address the skills gap.
“Businesses were telling us they had skilled worker shortages,” says SASD Superintendent Joe Sheehan, and the district was open to changing its curriculum to meet employer needs.
Mike Trimberger, principal of Sheboygan South High School, says the district didn’t have a clear destination in mind when starting on the project. Trimberger and Sheehan invited representatives from the manufacturing industry to tour the two high schools’ facilities.
“We didn’t know what we were missing until they came,” says Trimberger, explaining that the visitors unanimously declared the facilities outdated.
The manufacturing partners didn’t come just to offer critiques, however.
“They not only talked smart, they helped us,” Sheehan says.
The SASD board of education approved funding of $500,000 for the program, and local investors committed to $2.8 million in funding.
After applying for, and failing to receive, a $3.2 million federal grant in the spring of 2015, the district launched a capital campaign. Undeterred, Trimberger and Sheehan went back to the companies, and they still wanted to help.
The project had an initial budget of $5.7 million, Trimberger says, but the companies leveraged relationships with suppliers and were able to obtain materials at a cheaper rate. In the end, they saved nearly $1 million.
Red Raider Manufacturing, whose name combines Sheboygan South High School’s Redwings and North High School’s Raiders, debuted in March of 2016. The program boasts 43 industry partners, including 13 primary sponsors.
Manufacturing is no longer relegated to a dark corner of the two high schools; it’s front and center. “We have elevated that area,” says Trimberger.
When visitors walk into the school, Trimberger wants them to see the state-of-the-art equipment and students working on robotics projects.
While the program is still young, Sheehan and Trimberger have high hopes for the promise it offers to students and manufacturers alike. “When you talk about win-wins, this it,” Sheehan says.
Jessie Lloyd, a Fox Valley Technical College instructor who teaches dual credit welding courses for Wautoma High School, also sees a winning proposition with her program.
The winner of NEWMA’s Higher Education award teaches 18 students, who have a reputation for placing high in SkillsUSA competitions, which put technical skills to the test. “They do so well everywhere they go,” she says.
With a list of 13 employers hiring welders in the greater Wautoma area alone, the need for this program is clear, Lloyd says.
Students completing the program receive an entry-level credential, which can lead to a job in the industry or provide a segue to a four-year engineering program. The credits also transfer into a technical diploma program. “None of the classes they take are wasted,” Lloyd says.
Lloyd believes the program builds soft skills as well as technical. With the dual credit program, if students don’t earn a passing grade, they have to pay for the classes, a consequence they learn to understand well. Her students, she says, learn to become great employees.
Nercon Engineering & Manufacturing Inc., winner of the Manufacturing Innovation award, has partnered with the Oconto School District with a similar goal of molding future strong employees.
The company donated welding equipment and metal for Oconto High School’s manufacturing lab. In addition, it employs two youth apprentices from the school. “It’s a great deal,” says Sondra Lacoy, corporate human resources manager for Nercon. “They really get exposure to various roles in manufacturing.”
The program gives students experience working on equipment they normally wouldn’t be able to use because of age restrictions, Lacoy says, and the company’s employees have become great teachers.
Travis Falkowski, technical education teacher at Oconto High School, confirms Lacoy’s assertion. He says the company has done a great job teaching the two apprentices about issues such as how to bring up a problem at work. “It makes them adults, where they understand what’s important and what’s not.”
For Falkowski, who has witnessed his share of successful education-industry partnerships, it’s a natural fit. “It’s nice to see that companies are smart enough to see if they invest now they can have an employee later.”