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Sunday, 04 August 2013 22:00

The Missing Link? Connections program matches employers with educators to create a new talent pipeline

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Teachers from the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District visit Primera Plastics in Zeeland to get a better idea of the needs of modern manufacturing facilities as part of the Connections program that aims to show students local career options in industry. Teachers from the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District visit Primera Plastics in Zeeland to get a better idea of the needs of modern manufacturing facilities as part of the Connections program that aims to show students local career options in industry. PHOTO: KATY BATDORFF

Business and educational leaders on the lakeshore believe they’ve come up with a transformational new program aimed squarely at serving as a bridge between schools and industry.

The “Connections” program builds on many past efforts to link industry with the educational system. But rather than relying on an informal system of personal connections and chance, it seeks to add a repeatable infrastructure to link companies with students.

In essence, the Connections program maintains the connection between the up-and-coming talent in the educational system and the job-providers in the community who desperately need them.

“We’re trying to be more systematic so that we can make it so that all of our students have a greater understanding of the opportunities in the West Michigan area,” said Jason Pasatta, development director for career and technical training for the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District (OAISD), one of the partners in Connections. “(We’re) helping curriculum become more relevant and more rich with the skills that our local employers and industries are looking for.”

Local governments, OAISD, Lakeshore Advantage, the Michigan West Coast Chamber of CommerceHerman Miller Inc., Haworth Inc., Gentex Corp., Johnson Controls Inc., Primera Plastics Inc. and Metal Flow Corp. have all partnered to create the hands-on program, which officially began recruiting students in January of this year.

The program, which starts in September, blends traditional classroom learning with hands-on work at the participating companies, as well as the potential for college credit. It starts with students as early as the sixth grade and runs through high school.

“Connections is a business and education partnership that will be able to be scaled in the West Michigan area so that kids in sixth all the way up to 13th grade will have a chance to learn about these opportunities in our community,” said Christine Powers, director of business services for Lakeshore Advantage, the economic development agency for the greater Holland area.

The Connections program stems from an unlikely partnership between competitors to highlight local talent issues. That pairing resulted from a conversation about education involving Herman Miller CEO Brian Walker and Haworth CEO Franco Bianchi, Powers said.

“They found that many business leaders are collaborating with area school districts and the Ottawa ISD in different ways that are all producing fantastic results, but they just don’t have the scale in reaching the number of students that the educators were looking to reach,” Powers said.

Increasingly, manufacturers are concerned about what happens as a considerable chunk of the industrial workforce approaches retirement, especially given their struggle to find talent in the post-recession economy.

An October 2012 study by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) found that the average U.S. highly skilled manufacturing worker is 56 years of age. The firm estimated that the current market is short between 80,000 to 100,000 skilled manufacturing workers, but that shortage could approach 875,000 by 2020 for machinists, welders, mechanics and engineers.

“The good news is, a wide array of programs already exist in which schools, companies, governments, and nonprofits are working together to address these needs,” BCG Partner Michael Zinser stated in the report. “In the years ahead, it will be critical to find ways to extend these programs to reach a broader population.”

Connections provides companies with opportunities to expose students to all facets of modern industry and to give them valuable training in in-demand skills. At the same time, the program gives the youths an up-close look at local career options.

The program is split into two different sessions during the year, and students attend two days per week after school for two hours. Eligibility for students is based on having a minimum 2.0 grade point average and acceptable attendance.

Importantly, backers say that the “connection” process is not reliant on an internship coordinator at a local company having a personal relationship with one of the teachers or school administrators. That’s important because it adds structure and permanence to the program and helps it continue on after the current program champions retire or move on to other opportunities, sources said.

“We really wanted to make sure we had tight linkage with the economic development groups and businesses in the area,” Pasatta said. “(The companies involved) are trying to recruit young talent, and they see real potential in getting students at a younger age aware of and interested in their industry. That is something that could be a huge win for them and something they will need to do in the future.”

Pasatta told MiBiz that there are currently 36 teachers involved in Connections with plans to add more. In the sixth and seventh grade program, teachers are highly involved with the employers to learn about their needs. What the teachers learn at the companies is then tailored to the classroom curriculum and brought back to the students. As students progress through the program, they spend less time in classrooms and begin working after school hours at their assigned companies.

In the summer, students also have the ability to work at the participating companies and gain real-world experience that will help them determine what kinds of careers have the best fit.

The partners created a “13th grade” option at the local school districts so that as students enter their junior year of high school, they can begin taking introductory-level college classes. The number of college classes increases as students enter their senior year. Pasatta said that in theory, this could allow a 19-year-old student to receive both a high school diploma and an associate degree at the same time, while having a direct link to companies looking for their skills.

Stakeholders’ investment in the Connections program ranges from financial resources to time and talent. Haworth, for example, plans to spend between $5,000 and $10,000 per year on Connections, but the real value comes from the time and energy of the company’s many employees who are involved in working with students, said Sharon Netto-Lipsky, manager of recruiting and member effectiveness at the furniture manufacturer.

“If you add in people’s time and energy, it is more significant than the (financial investment),” she said.

The program did require a substantial investment on the part of the ISD, Pasatta said, noting that the district provided teachers with stipends during their training process.

Exact budget figures were unavailable as of press time, but sources told MiBiz that OAISD invested between $400,000 and $500,000 in Connections, while participating companies added $125,000.

With more than 3,000 employees in West Michigan, Haworth hopes to give students experience in both the professional and the manufacturing sides of the business, Netto-Lipsky said. In particular, exposing young people to modern, high-tech manufacturing is important because the jobs available today are not the gritty, dirty jobs most students likely associate with factory work, she said.

Much to the contrary, most of today’s manufacturers run very clean operations that require highly technical, skilled workers, Netto-Lipsky said, noting that Connections is helping plant that idea early on to get students excited about the prospects of a career in manufacturing, as well as provide them training.

“(Connections) is a very unique opportunity for (Haworth) to work with both the education system and local government to help develop the talent pipeline,” she said. “We are concerned about the brain drain.”

That concern about the industry-wide talent pipeline is evidenced by Haworth’s collaboration with Herman Miller in the early discussions about the Connections program, Netto-Lipsky said. Despite fighting against one another for customers, the two companies’ similar workforce needs brought them to collaborate in the program.

“(Haworth and Herman Miller) are both faced with a potential crisis of talent,” Netto-Lipsky said. “If we partner together, then I think we can influence the lives of the emerging workforce.”
While the imminent wave of skilled worker retirements and the flight of young talent out of Michigan and out of the manufacturing industry is a cause for concern, executives on the lakeshore have also started to see some positive economic signs.

In particular, unemployment in the Holland-Zeeland “high-productivity corridor” was at 2.8 percent for the month of June, according to a monthly report from Brian Long, director of supply management research at the Grand Valley State University Seidman College of Business.

The Holland-Grand Haven metropolitan statistical area (MSA) was also among the best performing regions in West Michigan, according to a first quarter analysis from George Erickcek, senior analyst with the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo.

The MSA’s goods-producing sector added about 200 jobs in the quarter, mostly in the manufacturing and construction sectors. Manufacturing employment, 33,420 people, grew 3.9 percent or 1,250 workers in the first quarter compared to a year ago, according to the report.

Despite these positive trends, supporters of Connections still see plenty of reason to act now, both for the needs of the community and the needs of the companies.

“Obviously, we won’t always have a (2.8 percent) unemployment rate,” said Powers of Lakeshore Advantage. “But what has also been shown in the last five years is that our employers are committed to this community. Part of that commitment involved a very high level of collaboration by area employers to develop this talent and continually reinvest in our people here.”


The Connections program, at a glance

A collaboration of lakeshore manufacturers and educators in the Holland, Zeeland, West Ottawa, Hamilton, Saugatuck, Black River and Holland Christian schools, Connections provides students with firsthand exposure to local career opportunities in manufacturing and industry, while also helping to prepare a talent pipeline for companies.

  • Grade 6-7: Students are taught a project-based curriculum as well as shown videos about workers’ personal stories in working at local companies. The goal is to help students begin to connect their learning to local career options and to begin to visualize their futures.
  • Grade 8-10: Students participate in immersion activities at local employers and work with mentors to wrap their aspirational goals into personal development plans.
  • Grade 10: Students can apply for the Connections Academy and early-college programs.
  • Grade 11-12: Connections participants engage with companies in a yearlong after-school program while gaining firsthand experience in the workplace.
  • With the early college program, students attend an extra year and finish with both a high school diploma and an associate degree from Grand Rapids Community College.
  • Enrollment in the program could lead to summer internships, job offers and tuition assistance.


Editor’s note: This story has been updated from a previous version to add the Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce to the list of partners in the Connections program. 


Read 5980 times Last modified on Monday, 05 August 2013 09:43

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