Lighting the Spark

Posted on Dec 9, 2011 :: Cover Story
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Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

For Josh Voigt, a first-year manufacturing engineering student at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, the experience that cemented his career choice was not from a classroom or job fair — it was from creating a race vehicle as part of a student team at Green Bay Preble High School.
“I loved it since the first day I worked on it,” says Voigt of his experience with Formula High School, a project that has students engineer and build a replica race car. “It wasn’t built from a kit. We have to build it pretty much from scratch over the school year.”

While Voigt showed some interest in manufacturing technology before the Formula project two years ago, he says the project made it clear how much he enjoyed the entire design/build process. During his senior year, he was on a team that created an even more advanced vehicle.
“Going through these programs solidifies in your mind that this is what you want to do,” says Voigt. “You don’t do it just for the heck of it. It’s done because you love doing what you do.”
To close the skills gap in manufacturing, the industry will need to attract more young people like Voigt. The need is especially sharp in Northeast Wisconsin, where manufacturers employ 24 percent of all workers, but many of those machinists, engineers and other skilled workers are baby boomers and are beginning to retire.

Mark Kaiser, president of Lindquist Machine Corporation and vice chairman of the NEW Manufacturing Alliance, says closing the skills gap is a major focus for the alliance and its collaboration with educators.

“We need to continue to build bridges with the schools to show people the real options they have in manufacturing,” he says.

Engaging youth

The NEW Manufacturing Alliance has undertaken multiple efforts to attract workers, including sponsoring a documentary about manufacturing (Manufacturing the Future, which has been broken into shorter segments to show in schools) as well as the annual Manufacturing All Stars publication, which highlights young people and their careers in manufacturing.

This fall’s launch of the Computer Integrated Manufacturing Mobile Lab is seen as another way to expose young people to tech-driven manufacturing careers. (You can read more about how the lab came together on page 13.) Several other programs (see sidebar, right) also are in the mix for developing workers and dispelling old myths. “The image people have of manufacturing needs to be revised,” says Kaiser. “It’s a high-tech business.”

As part of the Formula program, high school students learn about 3D computer-aided design software and are involved with manufacturing of certain parts as well as assembly and testing. Getting teens excited about creating a car can motivate them to tackle technical subjects like learning the basics of computer numerical control, says Jeremie Meyer, a technology and engineering instructor at Preble.

“You have to make it fun,” he says. “With all the vehicle projects, when you get the kids excited, they start to think, ‘yes, I want to learn how to do that.’ I hate to say it, but you trick them into learning, because along the way, they learn the basics of a CAD system, or the lathe, or a CNC plasma table.”

Mike Cattelino, associate dean of the manufacturing technology program at Fox Valley Technical College, says programs for high school youth like formula cars or FVTC’s “Mini-Chopper” get students engaged for additional learning. Even before that, he says, middle school programs like manufacturing camps help kids discover the industry.  “You have to do something cool to get them engaged,” Cattelino says.

David LeBrun, a technology education instructor at Southern Door High School near Brussels whose research on equipment drove creation of the mobile CNC lab, sees hope in the fact that more students now have access to advanced equipment. “My whole drive has been to make what we teach relevant by giving students some experience with what’s actually being used in industry,” he says.

No single solution
Many believe the skills gap needs to be addressed by targeting kids earlier. For example, according to LeBrun and Mark Weber, dean of NWTC’s trade and engineering technologies, the mobile lab could be toured by middle schoolers. Younger students already tour FVTC’s digital fabrication lab.

Cattelino says another positive is that more area companies are donating time, equipment, or materials to area high schools or programs like Mini-Chopper.

Brillion High School’s technology and engineering center was funded with the help of the charitable foundation of Ariens Co., which makes lawn and snow removal equipment. Bob Bradford, senior vice president of operations at Ariens, says several employees have volunteered at the center.
“It’s certainly not a requirement,” he says. “They do it because they believe in getting young people interested in manufacturing and engineering, and because it’s a way of giving back.”
There are other examples of support, such as at Freedom High School, where Baum Machine of Appleton donated a lathe, or at Ashwaubenon High School, which is using a milling machine donated by Robinson Metal of West De Pere.

Weber sees hope in an increase this fall in accepted applications for NWTC’s machining program. If demand jumps regionally, Weber is confident area colleges would be able to ratchet up class capacity.

Kaiser believes that ultimately, solving the skills gap will require a multi-pronged approach. “I think it’s a little early to say we’ve turned the corner, but what I see as a positive is that the manufacturing community is getting more connected with educators — and we are committed to working together to solve this problem.”