Manufacturers work to put career tech back into schools

Students work with manufacturing equipment at the Three Rivers High School. (Photo courtesy of Art Maisano)

LANSING — As high school shop and technical education classes fade from curriculums across the nation, manufacturers are looking to increase the number of their workforce with their own training programs.

Michigan is known for its manufacturing industry, being a leader in the automaking and technology sectors across the country.

During the 1990s, when Michigan was driving a four-year degree pipeline for high school students, shop and technical education classes were “wiped out,” said Mike Johnston, the executive vice president of government affairs and workforce development at the Michigan Manufacturing Association, or MMA.

Because of a push for college degrees outside of the technical field, many such classes were seen as unnecessary, according to Johnston.

Johnston said that makes it more difficult for many students to find jobs right out of high school, a situation the MMA has been working on changing through legislation and new school programs.

“A big chunk of my time is dedicated to getting career tech back in high schools,” Johnston said.

The MMA and national manufacturing organizations say they have come up with a solution to fight the impending shortage of skilled workers caused by the elimination of district wide programs.

Their answer: partnering with the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, or SME, a national organization that advocates for manufacturing education expansion, with the goal of placing shop and technical classes back into the high school curriculum.

SME PRIME, or the Partnership Response in Manufacturing Education, was founded in 2011 and now has 22 states participating, including Michigan.

That curriculum focuses on local needs, partnering with businesses to understand what shortages there are in their areas’ workforces. One goal is to address what SME PRIME sees as a 2 million worker shortage by the end of 2025 due to the retirement of skilled employees.

In 2021, 16 school districts in Michigan participated in the program. That year, SME PRIME received $6 million in grants from the state education budget to expand to more schools.

There are now 32 Michigan schools using the program, including Alpena High School and Cheboygan High School. Other participants include Rudyard High School, Grand Haven High School, Pontiac High School, Romeo High School, West Ottawa High School, Hancock High School, Innovation Central High School in Grand Rapids and Cornerstone Health + Technology High School in Detroit.

Johnston said that another $6 million has been put in place to boost the program this year by extending it to another 16 schools in the state.

The money provides resources to implement the programs with staffing and equipment, adding these as regular classes, not extracurricular activities, during the school day.

Rob Luce, the vice president of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers’ education foundation, said the program was established so students could graduate with skill sets and certifications that are industry-recognized credentials.

“PRIME is not an off-the-shelf, out-of-the-box, cookie-cutter type program that never has been and never will be,” Luce said. “Every program is tailored to meet the needs of local manufacturers.”

Luce said the local manufacturers send equipment to participating schools so students can interact with the type of work they may be interested in.

By the time the students graduate from the two-year program, they will be familiar with local resources and have a vested interest in their own communities.

Luce said SME’s partnership in Michigan has always been unique. Of the 93 schools that SME PRIME partners with, Michigan accounts for one-third.

Once Michigan adds the 16 schools that MMA is in discussions with, Luce said the state will make up half of the national total.

Luce credits Michigan’s “robust manufacturing industry” and the MMA’s ability to garner support through legislation and funding in Lansing for building the workforce.

Three Rivers High School fully implemented its program this school year.

In partnership with the St. Joseph County Intermediate School District Career and Technical Education, students from all over the county can come to Three Rivers High for the program.

Jennifer Yesh, the coordinator of career and technical education for the St. Joseph County ISD, said she applied for the grant not only to bring manufacturing equipment to the school, but also to connect manufacturers with students so they can see the future pathways they can take.

“SME works with the local manufacturers in the area to kind of bridge that gap,” Yesh said.

Yesh said 16 students are enrolled in the program, and 15 others use that classroom for technical education outside of the two-hour daily classroom window.

The high school has partnered with area businesses, such as American Axle and Manufacturing, an automotive and mobility supplier, and MVB Improvements LLC, which provides automation solutions.

Three Rivers High School has been able to obtain computer numerical control equipment and desktop mills for students to experience manufacturing work.

Jim Berry, the director of the Career and Technical Program at the St. Joseph County ISD, said that because robotics and automation are on the rise in manufacturing, it was built around manufacturing machine tools.

Berry said the intermediate school district would like to partner with the local airport within the next couple of years to give students the opportunity to work on aircraft engines, drawing on their different interests and providing more opportunities.

Yesh said she also hopes that just having the classroom in the building will attract the next few generations of students into the program.

“They see and they hear the mini-mill going or they hear the drills going and they look and they say ‘Hey, what’s going on in there?'” Yesh said. “It’s drawing interest for potential students for next year to say, ‘Hey, I want to sign up.'”

Yesh said before implementing the program, the shop room in Three Rivers High School was empty and used for storage because a shop class was never implemented after being built in 1997.

Yesh said she knew the program was a great opportunity to fill the space and meet the needs of the community.

Berry said the program at Three Rivers High School has put similar small communities l on the map for the manufacturing industry.

“We’re proud that our kids can come into this partnership with SME and use this equipment and really be super-employable,” Berry said.


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