Manufacturers Work to Weld the Student Connection

If the right matches were made today in celebration of Manufacturing Day in Southwest Michigan, Lakeshore High School alone may prove to be an absolute hotbed of talent headed into the mechanical engineering pipeline for the world of manufacturers in search of that talent.

In fact, one of the high school seniors showing the school’s Career and Technical Education shops at the high school in Stevensville already has a job lined up at Accu Die & Mold on Red Arrow Highway between Stevensville and Bridgman.

Three others expressly indicated mechanical engineering as the job they’d like to hold in the future which had to be music to the ears of employment coordinators, HR personnel and other manufacturing firm reps who ventured into several local school systems in Berrien and Van Buren Counties today on National Manufacturing Day.

It’s no secret that over 20-percent of the manufacturing workforce in Berrien, Cass, and Van Buren counties is above the age of 55 and nearing retirement in the next five years. That means that Michigan Works! Berrien Cass Van Buren restructured Southwest Michigan’s 7th annual Manufacturing Day event with a new focus of filling that gap. They turned the tables from the traditional option of sending students onto shop floors and gave them a chance to showcase their own workspaces where they’re learning welding, machining, auto repair, Computer Aided Design and even working with 3-D printers on real life projects.

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The 2019 local Manufacturing Day events were restructured to give more than 150 junior and senior career and technical education (CTE) students the chance to showcase their academic programs and facilities to 30 local employers, and to begin building meaningful relationships that may result in a career in manufacturing. In addition, there was a networking lunch to follow the tours at all three locations.

Lakeshore Superitendent Phil Freeman was just as excited as the kids as he greeted a handful of employers. He says, “We’ve had a lot of adults talking to adults, over the years, but we haven’t given the opportunity to have kids talk about what the CTE programs are right from their perspective, and what they see to be their future as well.” He calls today, “A good opportunity for the manufacturers to hear from the kids,” adding, “We’re hoping that our facilities have a lot of the same equipment that students will see once they walk out of here into the work world, so now the manufacturers and other employers get to come in and see our facilities and hopefully at some point we can open up the conversation and ask ‘Are we doing the right things, Are we setting the kids up for a positive experience, and are we setting you up to deliver a pipeline of employees that are going to be on their feet when they walk out of our schools.'”

Erin Venno is Sector Relations Coordinator for Michigan Works! She says, “This week is the result of a lot of conversations with our local manufacturing employers. They start looking for talent nearly a year ahead of graduation time, so how can we facilitate that?” She adds, “We know that these juniors and senior CTE students have been part of the previous manufacturing day events, are aware of some of the opportunities that exist in manufacturing, but they may not have had the opportunity to connect with employers just yet- which is where we come in. This year provided that opportunity and started conversations that will continue throughout the year as these students get closer to graduation and starting their careers.”

Alex Hoss is one such student, a senior at Lakeshore. He says, “We’ve been going over a lot of the things we do here in the auto CAD facilities at Lakeshore, showcasing our work with 3-D printers and what, and how, we design things right here at school,” and adds, “The goal is to hopefully head off into the real world and get a good job in industry.” For Alex, he says, “I want to do something in the world of design and mechanical engineering when I get out of high school.” He is one of those who is strongly considering college to study mechanical engineering.

Baylee MaKay is HR Manager at Hanson Mold. She and her colleague Chip Spear where on site at Lakeshore today. She says, “We have been part of Manufacturing Day over the last few years in partnership with Michigan Works! and this year was a prime example of quality over quantity.” She adds, “Manufacturing Day has traditionally been spent talking to thousands of students about what you do as a manufacturer, but this year- it was focused on finding our future workforce. I definitely made some connections with CTE students that I can see working for me in a year or two.”

Jackson Christner was another Lakeshore student who says he was, “Showing people our automotive program here at Lakeshore. Showing off our shop and what we do, and what we like to do.” Christner notes, “I’m on the engine build team, a second year student, and in the engine build club we take a 350HP engine apart and put it back together as fast as we can.” They’re very good at it, too. They can do it in about 25 minutes, and have a solid track record, good enough for Top 5 in the nation.

Jeanne Elsner is Employment Coordinator for LECO Corporation of St. Joe. She says, “We want to see that the kids are getting educated in the machining areas, and all of the manufacturing skills they offer, and we’re looking to get those students interested because there’s a lack of skilled employees headed into the pipeline for companies like ours.” Elsner adds, “We want to make sure that they come and see us, to learn what we do, and hopefully make a match and we can help each other out.”

Manufacturing Day is an annual national event that brings together manufacturers, students, teachers, parents, job seekers and other local community members to showcase modern manufacturing technology and careers.

At Lakeshore alone last year two students landed a job during such discussions and the next day an employer came in and said, “Give me your best three students from the auto class, I want them.” Superintendent Freeman says, “This is a great opportunity to make those connections.”

Chip Spear from Hanson Mold concurs. He says, “We’re here to see what’s happening at the high school level, and what we see is that what they’ve been learning has been great.” He adds, “We’re looking at the shops and also the character of the individuals to see if we can find somebody that would fit our career path at Hanson Mold, because, frankly, we’re looking everyday for top notch employees.”

Michigan Works! of Berrien, Cass, Van Buren is part of a statewide network of workforce development boards. Michigan Works! specializes in educating, training, and employing individuals of all ages. They work with local businesses to find out what keeps them up at night and help them tackle the most pressing challenges they may face, including attracting and retaining talent. For more information, visit