High Tech High

Posted on Sep 9, 2009 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

The three R’s will soon have a new look at Plymouth High School. With the modern workforce demanding more than just a mastery of the basic subjects, a partnership between the educators, manufacturers, the local technical college and the city itself will result in the installation later this year of a high-speed manufacturing training center at the school.

By day, high school students will have the opportunity to work on an actual high speed packaging line donated by Sargento Cheese and learn the ins and outs of modern manufacturing. By evening, Lakeshore Technical College will provide workforce training.

The center represents a growing trend of cooperation between the education system, industry and local government to maintain an educated workforce that can keep jobs and employers in the region.

“There is a new world environment out there that will require this kind of collaboration,” says Mark Rhyan, president of the Plymouth School Board and chief operating officer at Sargento. “We are all trying to improve the quality of life in our communities and the opportunities for those who live there.”

The center at Plymouth High School still has a few hurdles to clear, but school officials would like to see the remodeling work on the school start this fall. The project has qualified for a $1 million federal grant which will help pay the cost of that work, as well as relocating the manufacturing line to the facility.

In addition, the city of Plymouth has contributed $250,000 in tax increment financing for the project.

The folks at the school are anxious to get started.  The school uses the Project Lead the Way curriculum for pre-engineering and manufacturing, and the high-speed machinery will provide students another outlet for their work, says Superintendent Clark Reinke.

“This really helps us with our curriculum and instructional programs,” Reinke says. “The students will be able to see the math and science that are required to run a line like this. They can see that they have an application to real problems.”

Reinke is also optimistic the new manufacturing center will help students understand the need to pursue education after high school, as well as understand that does not have to mean education at a traditional university.

“There are other ways to get the training and education,” Reinke says. “It’s real critical to our region. It is important for young people to see there is an opportunity different from the picture of manufacturing they may have from their parents.”

The genesis of the training center in Plymouth was a series of meetings by the Sheboygan Chamber of Commerce’s operations round table. The discussion kept drifting into workforce needs, particularly the type of training future employees needed to have, says Peter Thillman, director of workforce solutions at Lakeshore Technical College.

“They indicated a need for better aptitude and better attitude from employees coming to work for them,” Thillman says. “Their biggest problem was finding folks who can operate the machines. We said ‘we can train them; let’s see if we can find some funding.’ We did.”

With this project, Plymouth High School will get to upgrade its technical education program while LTC will get additional classroom space to train existing employees.

The high-speed manufacturing center at Plymouth High School is part of a small, but growing trend of education and industry cooperatives around Northeast Wisconsin.

In recent years, Brillion High School has teamed with Ariens Company to open the Ariens Technology and Engineering Center at the school. The project includes fabrication, design and robotics capabilities for the high school’s engineering and technology classes.

Appleton East High School is home to the Tesla Charter School, an engineering based school whose participation in projects such as robotics competitions rely on local company sponsorships that include not only money, but a chance for students to work hands on with professionals.

This fall, Neenah High School launched a Manufacturing and Engineering Academy using the Project Lead the Way curriculum and is supported by a cadre of local manufacturers who will not only provide financial support, but provide job shadowing, internships and use of equipment for projects.

It’s a trend that seems to be restoring the long-broken connection between the business and education communities, says Mike Cattelino, associate dean of Manufacturing, Information and Agriculture Technologies at Fox Valley Technical College. He is also on the advisory board for the new academy.

“The answer is not just to put more money into education,” Cattelino says. “What we have to do is get business and education involved together.  The way education is evolving, it is important that business and industry be involved.”

At Neenah High School, the academy represents a more formal approach to efforts that have been going on for several years, says Marty Etteldorf, a 1982 Neenah High graduate and plant manager of United Plastic Fabricating.

“I’ve been working with kids at Neenah High School for 10 years either mentoring or having them come and working with us in the manufacturing area of the plant,” says Etteldorf, who is on the advisory board for the academy. “This takes it to the next level. This may open the door for a lot of them to learn more about what is out there.”

The stakes are too high for education and industry not to work together, says Ann Franz, economic program manager at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College.  The jobs that are the lifeblood of many local communities depend on it, she says.

“Nearly 24 percent of all jobs in our area are tied to manufacturing,” Franz says. “We need to keep those jobs here. If people won’t go into these jobs, then the manufacturers will leave.”

As successful as some of the cooperative ventures have been, Franz says both educators and business leaders many times face a perception obstacle that keeps kids from going into manufacturing related fields. Many parents still see manufacturing in terms of the early 20th Century assembly line where an employee’s sole job might be to attach a single bolt to a product all day long.

A recent survey by the National Association of Manufacturers found that while a majority of people thought manufacturing jobs were important to the economy, only three in 10 would recommend it as a career choice to their kids.

To help change those perceptions, and perhaps make parents more agreeable to allowing their students to pursue the classes offered by these cooperative projects, Franz says the NEW Manufacturing Alliance is active in several efforts. Those include the Assembly Road Show – which spotlights manufacturing careers – to scholarships provided to area tech schools for manufacturing-oriented degrees, says Franz, coordinator of the alliance.

While conceding that the perception barrier is there, Rhyan chuckles when he thinks about the reality of what students will work on once the center in Plymouth opens.

“There are no bolts anymore,” he says. “The equipment they will learn to run – what they will run – runs into the millions of dollars for a single line.”

What students using the Plymouth Center will simulate is the operation of a flexographic packaging line similar to what they might use if they worked at Sargento. The equipment is also similar to the operations of lines in several other high speed manufacturing processes.

It’s not so much that they learn how to do the packaging, but rather they learn how to operate and trouble-shoot the line to keep it in operation.

“The skills are completely different than what they used in the past,” Rhyan says. “These are skills associated with associate and bachelor’s degrees. It’s science, math and technology.”

Thillman says the emphasis really comes down to problem solving and communication. Students not only have to have the academic skills, they need to be able to apply them to solve problems, whether they are robotic, computer or mechanical.

“You are doing the job of 20 people with this machine. The skill level is a lot higher than what the perception might be,” Thillman says.

But it’s more than just the skills students will learn. What those involved in these projects stress is that cooperative ventures such as the Plymouth training center will not only produce a better workforce, they will keep employees and employers in their community.

“That just makes the whole area more attractive,” says Reinke. “We want this to lead to better opportunities.”

The industry-based experience is key, says Etteldorf.

“They are so much more engaged with these programs,” he says. “The response has been tremendous. Maybe we can make it easier for some of our future residents to get into these careers and keep these industries going.”