Next generation gets hands-on look at manufacturing world

For Jay Dunwell, the annual Discover Manufacturing Week that brings hundreds of students into contact with various industry professionals is a kind of win-win-win scenario.

Congresswoman Haley Stevens with students from 10 western Wayne County middle schools. Photo by Jerry Zolynsky

Discover Manufacturing, a regional network of hundreds of manufacturers, sponsors the annual event in an effort to continue to address the short- and long-term talent needs of West Michigan’s manufacturing industry.

And Dunwell, president of Grand Rapids-based Wolverine Coil Spring, which makes springs, stampings, wire forms and assemblies for the automotive, appliance, office furniture and other industries and is a long-time participant in the week, sees those short- and long-term benefits.

“Short-term, it gives our staff a positive shot in the arm through the fun of sharing what we do day-in and day-out with energetic young minds,” Dunwell said. “In the long term, we hopefully spark an interest in the manufacturing industry in general such that some of these students may someday find their way back to a great manufacturing career and possibly even with WCS.”

East Kentwood High School students learn how to take a sample from a metal rod to examine under the microscope at NN Mobile. Photo by Samantha Salter

It’s all part of a push to attract students to the manufacturing industry. In western Wayne County, for example, more than 700 students took part in the Oct. 4 Manufacturing Day event, a series of visits to a variety of businesses all designed to engage students and draw them into manufacturing careers.

The Plymouth-based Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center, which started the event in October 2012, uses the day as an opportunity to show the public modern manufacturing in action and “inspire the next generation of skilled workers.”

Emerson Middle School students learning about bearing polishing equipment at CW Bearing in Northville. Photo by Jerry Zolynsky

“Our mission is based on serving our state’s small- and medium-sized manufacturers to they can succeed in an ever-changning business environment,” said Mike Coast, MMTC’s president. “One of the major challenges facing manufacturing is developing the next generation of skilled trades that will be needed in this increasingly high-tech profession.”

Manufacturing Day, Coast added, “enables us to shine the spotlight on an industry that accounts for the largest sector of the Michigan economy, with 21 percent of the total output in the state and 14 percent of the workforce.”

Nextech High School students watching the etching process at Terryberry. Photo by Samantha Salter

On the west side, Kentwood-based NN Mobile Solutions turns Discover Manufacturing Week into a party atmosphere, putting together the Kentwood Manufacturing Block Party in yet another effort to provide students a first-hand experience in the world of manufacturuing.

Together, the five partners in the block party were able to show some 240 students the inside workings of the manufacturing industry.

An engineer at CW Bearing in Northville demonstrates a measuring device for students from Livonia’s Emerson Middle School. Photo by Jerry Zolynsky

“If asked, a student if often able to describe the work of a police officer, physician or a teacher … they have observed those professions in action,” said Steve Heethuis, the training director for NN Mobile Solutions. “The block party concept provides a first-hand view of what it means to become an apprentice, technician, machinist or engineer. Our designed experience is not just a guided tour, but a hands-on interaction so the students can connect concepts like math, science or chemistry from their classroom to knowledge in the workforce.”

Heethuis said the party includes a “lunch challenge” focusing on skills needed for teamwork, listening, following directions and problem solving.

“We utilize this activity to highlight how similar the skills needed to be successful in the classroom are the same as the skills for the workplace,” he said. 

Organizers point out Manufacturing Day has seen participation “grow dramatically” over the years. Consider these points about the statewide effort:

  • In southeast Michigan, the MMTC’s involvement includes working with the Livonia Chamber of Commerce and Schoolcraft College to enable more than 700 students, teachers and chaperones from 10 schools to tour 10 manufacturers.
  • In Grand Rapids, the center supports Discover Manufacturing, a partnership event among Michigan Works!, community colleges, higher education institutions and economic developers that attracts nearly 9,000 students and more than 180 manufacturers.
  • In northeast Michigan, approximately 15,000 students took part in Career Quest and visited companies hosting open houses.
  • Across a five-county region in the northern lower peninsula, the center partnered with the Manufacturing Council for 1,500 students to tour manufacturing facilities.

In Allegan, Perrigo Company hosted some 175 students from seven Allegan County high schools, giving them visibility into the company’s impact within the global self-care movement while learning how Perrigo’s products are made, packaged and ultimately sold to consumers through retail customers. 

White Cloud eighth-graders tour GM Wood Products to see the process by which the company manufacturers door frames. Photo by Samantha Salter

“Michigan Manufacturing Week offers a great opportunity for us to connect with the next generation of self-care leaders who reside right here in West Michigan,” said Randy Spies, director of technical operations for Perrigo. “Manufacturing plays a key role in our business and our distribution partners, such as Walmart – who joined us in this effort – rely on us to help bring innovation and affordability to the self-care model at retail.”

The benefits of manufacturing week are already being experienced, according to Heethuis, who said teachers are “more aware of the opportunities for their students, how their curriculum is relevant to business and how they can connect their curriculum to make it a benefit to both the student and business.”

“Local business is benefited in multiple ways,” he said. “Students have a better understanding of advanced manufacturing. They can either consider it an option or rule it out, based on being informed on what manufacturing can offer.”

And, while there are some short-term benefits, WCS’s Dunwell knows the real benefit comes down the road, when companies reap the rewards of the seeds they sow during this week.

“Manufacturers who need to hire today will likely not find their immediate needs met through Discover Manufacturing Week,” Dunwell said. “This event is the long-term play. Everyone’s career path begins with some form of career exploration. Discover Manufacturing Week hopes to facilitate that career exploration, excite that young mind, dispel that misperception, wow them with the technology that is infused in all aspects of today’s manufacturing, and ultimately enhance manufacturing in the community’s mind as the important and rewarding industry that it is.”