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Published in Manufacturing
Northview Next added a manufacturing lab to its school this year. All 35 of the school’s students will spend time learning in the lab, complete with six different machines that provide training in various disciplines of manufacturing. Northview Next added a manufacturing lab to its school this year. All 35 of the school’s students will spend time learning in the lab, complete with six different machines that provide training in various disciplines of manufacturing. COURTESY PHOTO

High school programs give West Michigan students a path to manufacturing careers

BY Sunday, August 29, 2021 05:20pm

As the new class of students arrived at Northview Next this year, they may have noticed some new advanced manufacturing training tools. 

An alternative school with an enrollment of 35 students that’s part of Northview Public Schools, Northview Next now houses a manufacturing lab, complete with six different machines that provide training in everything from electrical systems and motor controls to pneumatic systems and mechanical power.

The lab also features a Skills Boss, which is a computer-controlled machine that facilitates training in a variety of advanced manufacturing disciplines.

All students will spend time in the lab this school year, getting a baseline overview of a variety of manufacturing skills, including their first glimpses of Industry 4.0.

“We thought that if we can build a lab where kids can learn a trade and get a credential, we feel like we’d better prepare them for what they want to do next,” said Drew Klopcic, director of the Northview Next program.

Northview Next’s manufacturing-focused education is one of the latest additions to area training programs aimed at high schoolers, giving them a path into an industry that is starved for new talent.

The alternative

Klopcic and the current staff at Northview Next have been instrumental in changing the direction of the school. Just three years ago, Northview Next operated like most other schools with traditional classroom learning.

Klopcic then introduced a weekly program called Future Focus Fridays, which laid the groundwork for a curriculum more focused on equipping students for their future careers. Every Friday, Northview Next students and faculty conducted site visits with employers from a variety of industries to get a behind-the-scenes look at each operation.

“We were getting kids into different places and helping them find out about all the options,” Klopcic said. “The only problem was we didn’t do anything different Monday through Thursday. We said, ‘What can we do to bring that excitement five days a week?’”

Northview Next tapped into a statewide project called Jobs For Michigan Graduates to provide training in different career competencies. When students graduate, they get both a diploma and a certificate to show they have mastered these competencies.

The program steered toward manufacturing when Klopcic and his staff aspired to create an on-site lab so that students didn’t have to go elsewhere — like the Kent Career Technical Center or Grand Rapids Community College — for hands-on training.

Knowing that manufacturers have a persistent need for new talent, the school decided a manufacturing-focused curriculum would be a good fit, Klopcic said.

“As we were trying to think of a trade we could bring directly on site, manufacturing just made a lot of sense, especially where we are location-wise,” Klopcic said. “We have a ton of different manufacturers just down the road.”

In fact, partnerships with area manufacturers are one crucial element for success with Northview Next and similar programs. Under Northview Next’s Employer Engagement Model, private manufacturing partners provide a range of services, from site visits and training to job shadowing, internships, apprenticeships and other educational opportunities.

Through Jobs For Michigan Graduates, Klopcic connected with the manufacturing team at Ada-based Amway Corp. in June to discuss the newly-established program at Northview Next. As a result, Amway provided Northview Next with access to a dedicated manufacturing expert.

Training such as Northview Next’s program should be welcomed by most companies in the manufacturing industry, which over the years has faced persistent workforce shortages and a talent gap, all of which have been exacerbated recently by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Executives in the sector have consistently stressed the need to engage with students at the high school-level, show them the viability of the industry and highlight that manufacturing has evolved from the stereotypical hard work and dirty manual labor.

Cascade Die Casting Group Inc. President Pat Greene recently toured Northview Next to learn more about the program, finding that its manufacturing lab not only features state-of-the-art equipment, but also that the program lays the groundwork for Industry 4.0.

“I liked that they’re teaching kids hydraulics and electronics and robotics and getting them excited about what can be done there,” Greene said. “I think they have the right tools and instructors that are motivated. For the right kids, that’s something that can be a real game-changer for them.”

Northview Next and similar high school-level programs provide baseline training to help get a young professional’s foot in the door. Greene said that most manufacturers can pick up with various training where the programs leave off.

“Manufacturing offers an excellent career path for kids that have some mechanical skills and are interested in working with their hands,” Greene said. “We’ll send them back to school. We’ll make sure they get the education they need. I think it’s a win all the way around.”

Klopcic said that most Northview Next graduates currently head straight into the workforce. In the future, he hopes more of them will transition into at least a two-year secondary training program.

Shop class 2.0

Learning the baseline skills for modern manufacturing doesn’t have to happen in specialized programs like Northview Next or at the Kent Career Technical Center. Rather, these basics can start bleeding into traditional shop and technology classes in all high schools, according to local executives. 

“(Shop classes) were great for allowing someone to experience and learn a trade,” Greene said. “That unfortunately has not been as popular in the last couple of years as people are more focused on getting kids to college.”

Some area high schools are filling that gap more effectively than others with a modernized curriculum for students who want technical training inside a traditional high school.

On the lakeshore, Whitehall High School offers a CAD course for students and plans to introduce additional programming in mechatronics and an introduction to engineering.

Whitehall is one of about a dozen schools in Michigan to participate in the Partnership Response In Manufacturing Education (PRIME) initiative, made available through a partnership with the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME). The PRIME program helps schools develop a manufacturing-focused curriculum based on the needs of local manufacturers.

While the school no longer actively receives funding — it can apply for sustainability funding — it did purchase a number of 3D printers through the program in addition to other equipment like a CNC plasma table.

Technology teacher Jeremy Sheaffer teaches this programming to Whitehall students. He came to the school after a career in manufacturing that included a role as production manager for Grand Haven-based Shape Corp., a Tier 1 supplier of automotive structural components.

Sheaffer remains keenly aware of the talent needs of his former industry.

“Going back to 2008 or 2009, it seemed like the apprenticeship programs were the first thing cut,” he said. “A couple of years later, things had picked back up and we couldn’t find electricians or maintenance people. Was it a shortage? Yes, but we lost that homegrown talent that we were supplying to ourselves.”

Sheaffer said that he hasn’t personally had any in-depth conversations with area manufacturers, but that dialogue and those relationships will be important for the ultimate success of the school’s manufacturing-centered programing.

“We’re still trying to figure out the best way to incorporate local business,” he said. “Right now, we’re just focused on the curriculum and what we want to teach and how we want to teach it.”

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