Starting From the Ground Up

This article appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.

How employers are connecting with students to support the next generation of talent

Workforce development continues to be the No. 1 challenge facing manufacturers as employers seek more opportunities to engage students via Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs. While labor market data points out that manufacturing pays more than any other industry sector, today’s high school students are looking for more than just good pay — they’re looking for value-added benefits such as tuition reimbursement and a healthy workplace culture, to name just a few.

Today, manufacturers focus on education and awareness, work-study programs and leveraging regional partnerships to engage tomorrow’s top talent. Education and awareness are so important because a career path in manufacturing now is much different than it was even a few decades ago. While employers are working hard to keep positions filled and increase their “bench strength,” they’re also working to shift the statewide narrative that has hampered Michigan’s most vital industry.

Education and Awareness

For years, manufacturing has faced an image problem. The 1980s saw drastic economic shifts, which affected how people viewed manufacturing jobs. When facing economic headwinds over the past two generations, manufacturing was unfairly painted as dingy, dangerous and unstable work. Now, many modern manufacturers look more like tech companies with brightly lit workspaces where employees congregate and collaborate.

The needs have changed as well. Today’s Industry 4.0 technology is simply vital to the industry’s long- term sustainability. The high school students some manufacturers are recruiting will be trained to become the software engineers, programmers and other tech pros these companies need. Bottom line, the face of manufacturing has been evolving for a long time and continues to change at a rapid pace.

Conveying this message to high school students is step one when it comes to building the foundation of future manufacturing talent, says Steve Heethuis, Training Director at Autocam of NN Inc. He and other members of the Autocam team host a variety of outreach programs in Michigan high schools in order to increase the students’ exposure to the industry.

“The manufacturing world is so much bigger than what most students have been exposed to,” says Heethuis. “If you think about it, the students we come into contact with know what teachers and doctors do, but many of them don’t know what a machinist, technician or auto- mation engineer does. We help provide that visibility for them, which opens them up to career possibilities they might not have ever heard about before.”

When trying to make a meaningful connection with a student, it’s important to give them something tangible that helps them visualize what the day-to-day looks like. That’s why, when it comes to presenting to students and teachers, Heethuis and the team at Autocam get a little creative.

“When the students have the opportunity to do a hands-on, tactile thing, it connects and it gets their attention,” says Heethuis.

For example, at a recent classroom presentation, the Autocam team challenged the students to build an automation cell in under a few minutes using parts that were provided. It was a great way to get the students engaged in something physical while also being able to talk big picture when it comes to choosing a manufacturing career.

“There are 50 spots on a tray, and the students had to try and put these tiny fuel injector nozzles into a tray. Nobody was able to finish a tray in the two and half minute time limit,” says Heethuis. “So that opened the door for our team to talk about how they use programming, robotics and automation to do that type of task.

“The value add isn’t in loading a tray, it’s being able to think strategically and provide that part for  a customer.”

Engaging with the teachers is also an important aspect of generating that initial interest as they can become your best advocates, says Heethuis. Autocam has even gone so far as sending in their own personnel to teach lessons for a day.

“We’ve had our chemists go out to advanced chemistry classrooms and teach lessons,” says Heethuis. “We’ve also had project managers and mechatronics engineers do presentations at high schools, talking about what mechatronics engineering looks like.”

The Benefit of Work Study Programs

Work study programs have always been a great way to steer students toward careers in manufacturing. The big draw is that these programs add practical, hands-on work experience to balance classroom theory. Most co-op arrangements lead to full-time employment for students after graduation.

Dave Maurer, President of Kalamazoo-based Humphrey Products, is a big believer in co-op programs’ ability to nurture tomorrow’s manufacturing professionals today.

“This continues to be extremely successful for us,” Maurer says. “Providing the hands-on experience has always worked the best. So, getting them in the shop and getting them started and kind of moving them through various areas of the manufacturing environment, that’s what we try to do.”

Statewide Resources for Employers and Employees

Revolutionizing Michigan’s talent development systems to meet the skills needed to empower the largest sector of Michigan’s economy — manufacturing — to thrive is a top priority for MMA and its dedicated and powerful team of lobbyists. Take advantage of these resources to support your company’s workforce needs and contact MMA’s Bill Rayl to strategize a plan for your future.

Going PRO Talent Fund
The Going PRO Talent Fund awards grant funds to employers for training, developing and retaining current and newly hired employees. State lawmakers increased the budget for 2023 to $55 million in part thanks to MMA’s advocacy efforts.

Michigan Reconnect
Workers over the age of 25 can earn a tuition-free associate degree or Pell-eligible skill certificate at an eligible community college with the Michigan Reconnect program. The state has earmarked $55 million for 2023 expanding the program to 40,000 more applicants.

PRIME® Talent Program
SME Foundation’s PRIME® is a national initiative that is currently in 63 schools across 22 states. Thanks to an MMA-led effort to secure a $6 million appropriation to the School Aid Fund Budget, the state has doubled the number of schools participating in the unique manufacturer/educator partnership-driven PRIME initiative.

See to learn more about these resources and contact MMA’s Bill Rayl at 517-487-8513 or

Often times, students will start the training program with little to no experience. That’s when they’ll get started in a small role learning the foundational aspects of manufacturing work such as being able to measure parts and operate basic tools such as calipers and micrometers, according to Maurer. These are vital skills to have for anyone hoping to find full-time employment at Humphrey Products and most other manufacturers.

Sometimes, programs are so successful that they’re adopted as an industry-wide practice. That’s the case with the Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education, or FAME, which was started as a pilot program internally at Toyota to train multiskilled maintenance technicians, then evolved to the current model. This model produces “global-best, entry-level multiskilled maintenance technicians” through a rigorous five-semester work-study program that now has more than 30 chapters across a dozen states with more than 1,500 graduates who benefit from 85 percent placement into full-time work with their sponsoring employer.

Meg Wallace, Senior Engineer at Toyota Motor North America Research and Development in Saline, says interest in the program from other employers quickly spread beyond the walls of Toyota. They started organizing chapters at different locations which included dozens of different employers. Eventually, the program scaled up to a point that, in 2019, Toyota decided to hand it over to The Manufacturing Institute (MI) to help strengthen the program and grow it nationally. The MI is the workforce and education partner of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Manufacturers, the country’s largest trade group for manufacturers.

Adoption by your competitors has to be the best form of flattery in the manufacturing world. So, what exactly has made this program so successful?

“I think that it’s academically rigorous and students will rise to the occasion if you set the bar high,” says Wallace. “That’s just one reason. I think that it’s also a good structure for employers to get involved.

To take part in FAME, students enlist in a community college that serves as the chapter’s educational partner. Taking their cues from employers, curriculum is developed to specifically cater to dynamic industry technology, processes and needs.

“How it works is that employers help recruit students into the program. Once the employers settle on the students that they want to work with, the students will work for the employer three days a week and go to school at the community college two days a week.”

Currently, there is no FAME chapter in Michigan but Wallace and others are working on it with a tentative launch date in the fall of 2023. They plan on partnering with Washtenaw Community College which already has a robust manufacturing technology program.

“Washtenaw Community College has a lot of great programs related to the advanced manufacturing technician degree, like a mechatronics and other disciplines. They already have a really strong core curriculum for the technical skills.” says Wallace. “Washtenaw and the employers will also get extensive support and training from the Manufacturing Institute to support other aspects of the program, such as professional behaviors, lean manufacturing, problem solving and other skills. 

It Takes a Village — Leveraging  Regional Partnerships

Orbitform, a forming and fastening equipment provider in Jackson, supports its talent pipeline through partnerships with local CTE programs. For example, the company works with JAC3, which is managed by the Jackson Area Career Center, to provide students with the opportunity to do a work- study during their last two years of high school.

“By the third year, [the students are] working here full-time and have earned an associate degree in manufacturing,” says Orbitform President Jacob Sponsler.

Working with JAC3 has been a valuable tool to create more outreach with students but Orbitform has also worked very hard at creating the right culture and long-term benefits that would attract younger Millennials and Gen Z employees. More than anything, the transition that Sponsler has seen over the years is that students who are ready to enter the workforce now are looking for opportunities for growth, to be engaged in the work they’re doing and for strong company values.

“I feel that at one point, these things were considered a nicety to have on the job but now that’s become a business requirement,” says Sponsler. “From an organizational standpoint, that’s a real benefit because you’re getting people who are motivated and want to be engaged which is something that really supports the culture.”

They say a single wave can lift all boats and that has been the case for Maurer and Humphrey Products when it comes to regional workforce development. Maurer has been involved with developing regional programs for the past 10 years after he was asked to sit on a workforce development board for the four- county region — Kalamazoo, Calhoun, Branch and St. Joseph.

“Everybody was coming out of that and realizing that they had a real problem with labor. So, that’s really when I started getting involved,” says Maurer.

Maurer also got involved with Southwest Michigan First and the Kalamazoo Regional Education Services Agency (RESA). Both agencies provide support for workforce development programs in different ways: Southwest Michigan First is the economic development agency for the region while Kalamazoo RESA oversees CTE curriculum for local school districts.

Maurer says it was highly beneficial for Humphrey to be involved with all three of the regional agencies to understand how they interact and the opportunities that are out there.

“Being involved in these regional groups gives me good relationships with people who can help coach and point me in the right direction for a lot of things,” says Maurer. “It also provides a direct relationship with the CTE administrators and instructors. They can try to point individual kids my way, or give me a heads up on students who may be interested in a co-op.”

Heethuis has also been able to leverage regional collaboration to not only benefit his company, the Grand Rapids-based Autocam, but the entire west Michigan area. Since 2018, he has served as Executive Chair for Discover Manufacturing, a group that’s entirely focused on inspiring and expanding manufacturing talent throughout west Michigan. Discover Manufacturing serves as a bridge between employers and potential talent and vice versa.

“With Discover Manufacturing, our programs focus on creating a robust and consistent interest in manufacturing careers for west Michigan students,” says Heethuis. “Whether that’s machining or support functions from IT to supply chain and accounting, we consider those all pathways to manufacturing careers.”

Making The Case to Young People

College, trade schools, the military, apprenticeship programs, entrepreneurship — today’s young people have more choices than ever when it comes to their future. On top of that, the post-COVID-19 marketplace has created an employee’s market for perhaps the first time in a long time. Manufacturing companies have to compete for the best employees in this new world and, in order to remain relevant and competitive, they need to get creative.

The first stage of that engagement is one of the most critical — connecting with the right stakeholders and exposing young people to the value and benefits of the many manufacturing career pathways available. This is where employers can start from the ground up by connecting with the right influencers such as parents, teachers and guidance counselors. Once those connections are made, employers can focus on creating opportunities for exposure, says Heethuis.

“I think a barrier is not having those opportunities to explore the industry,” he says.

Providing information and education is also key. Growing up in the digital age, younger generations are used to having all the information in the world right at their fingertips, so it’s important to answer their questions and provide enough information to pique their interest and keep them interested.

“One of the key factors here is telling students about the types of experiences they’ll have at work,” says Heethuis. “More and more, individuals want to understand what will I get to work on? What will I get to do? They’re not overly worried about what title they’re going to have.

“The more we can show that or have students even participate as an experiential thing, that’s definitely a win.”

Cultivating the next generation of talent continues to be today’s No. 1 challenge, and it’s clear there are many Michigan manufacturers relying on their own creativity and problem-solving skills to find solutions for the future. Through these programs, they’re also helping to reshape the industry’s image for all of us.

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