Contest Offers Partnerships With Its Prizes

Changing the way students and parents view manufacturing jobs is the goal of a local video contest with more than $10,000 in prizes for area schools.

“The perception is factory jobs are mundane, dirty and not a desirable career,” said John Kraus, principal of Kent Career Tech Center, one of the sponsors of the contest. “We want to dispel that thinking within students and parents – and show them what a good career choice it is today.”

“It’s a much different world,” said Jay Dunwell, chairman of the Right Pace Manufacturers Talent Committee and president of Wolverine Coil Spring in Grand Rapids.

Some of those differences include significant improvements in manufacturing workplaces, Dunwell said.  At his company, for example, sound absorbing baffles have been added to decrease noise and investments have been made to reduce odors and high temperatures.  The brightness of the work area also has increased, with the company even adding skylights in recent years.

“It makes the work environment better and more enjoyable are to work in,” Dunwell said, “and that helps us do more quality work.”

Another change is the repetitive, low-skilled jobs that many people associate with manufacturing are now being done by robots.  “The biggest contrast is probably the automation that exists,” Kraus said. “Probably some jobs still include mundane tasks, but most are done on machines.”

A big reason behind the video contest is the need for more high-skilled manufacturing employees. Since the industry’s resurgence in the last few years, high-skilled jobs in West Michigan have been going unfilled, Kraus said.Jason Kalis, Exploration of Mechatronics instructor at Kent Career Tech Center, reads the instructions for programming a small-scale traffic light, one of the projects his students are assigned

“The challenge to find talent is insurmountable,” Dunwell said. “Even if we have ads all over the place, the workers aren’t out there.”

The Discovering Manufacturing Today Video Challenge pairs student teams with manufacturers. After spending time together, the team will create a video that shows off the company’s workplace and explains how the manufacturing world has changed.

The video will focus on the many ways you can begin a manufacturing career and what you can do once you get there, tackling another misconception about modern manufacturing. While getting a degree, then getting a job has been the traditional approach, Kraus said, new routes to careers and higher education have emerged. These new routes include taking hands-on classes in high school like those at the Tech Center, and proceeding to a work study, apprenticeship or internship, where employers pick up the tab for schooling.

One example of the generous offers from manufacturers is the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) with Grand Rapids Community College. Companies in the partnership pay for student tuition and also hire them part-time, with hopes the students will eventually become permanent staff, Dunwell said. Once hired, the companies will reimburse tuition costs for an employee who wants more education.

Students are not even required to go to work for the company that has given them this deal. The manufacturers in AMP are offering the sweet deal because they’re in such desperate straits to attract people to the industry, Dunwell said.

Inside the Contest

The prizes awarded to the contest winners will include $2,500 for the top video selected by the judges, and $2,500 for the video that receives the most votes via Facebook.  Second-place winners in the two categories each get $1,500. The prize money goes to the schools.

Members of the Manufacturers Council of The Right Place, another contest sponsor, will do the judging.

Forty-one teams have registered and 26 companies are mentoring one or more teams, according to Michael Blakley, business services representative for a third sponsor, Michigan Works! Kent and Allegan Counties.  Some of the companies participating include Amway, ADAC Automotive, Davidson Plyforms, Wolverine Coil Spring, Flexco, GR Spring and Stamping, Autocam, Terryberry and Rapid-Line.

A valuable benefit to participating in the contest is the relationship students can build with a local manufacturer, Kraus said. It’s a chance to ask potential employers questions about careers, industries, what skills they’ll need for the work world, where to get those skills, and recommendations for colleges.

A Typical Team

The contest is open to schools in 13 counties, and two of the teams competing — The Green Team and The Awesome People — are from the Tech Center’s Mechatronics Program.

“These are the kids who are at the heart of keeping our economy robust,” said Jason Kalis, who teaches the Tech Center’s Exploration of Mechatronics class for 10th grade students interested in engineering, robotics, electronics. “That’s why these companies are eager to partner with us.”

The study of mechatronics covers mechanical and electrical engineering with computer science, control systems, mathematics and clean manufacturing. The two-year Mechatronics Program for 11th- and 12th- graders dives deeper into these topics and students work in labs with state of the art equipment, preparing them for related careers.

Tim Lehmann, a member of The Awesome Team, is big into cars, a member of the robotics team, planning to study engineering at Michigan Tech — and dressed in a T-shirt that says “Eat. Sleep. Mechatronics.” He expects the Tech Center class will help him figure out what area of engineering he’ll pursue.

TThe T-shirt says it all hat’s very important today, said Kalis, noting a hands-on class can show students what they do or do not want to do, instead of finding that out from switching college majors or after their first job. “You can’t afford not to know,” he said. “It’s too expensive.”

CONNECT

Video contest information

Video Challenges Facebook page

Kent Career Tech Center Mechatronics

Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio

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