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Local companies find solutions in high school seniors while they explore careers

Alvin Hughes sat at his desk at Wyoming-based Mark-Maker Co. Inc., and explained how he uses computer-aided design to ensure that dimensions are correct before die preparation begins on a customer’s product.

“I didn’t know any of this before I came in here,” said Hughes, a 2017 graduate of Kelloggsville High School.

It was on-the-job training for Hughes, who was among the first KHS students to participate in a program that lets seniors forgo their three elective courses to earn credit – and an hourly wage – at work.

Kelloggsville’s work-based learning program began with four students, one employer, and John Linker – then a high school science teacher – who coordinated the program during his lunch breaks and planning periods. Now, just two years later, it has 20 students and  seven employers. Linker is still there, but is no longer volunteering his breaks: the district hired him as the full-time work experience coordinator.

Kamrin Zube, a senior at Kelloggsville, spends mornings in the classroom and afternoons in the die shop at Mark-Maker Co. Inc.

A well-timed call

The idea to start this work co-op style program began with a conversation between Linker and two colleagues.

“We said, ‘We’ve got all these companies in the area – why don’t we partner with them?’” Linker said. “As fate would have it, two or three days later Mark-Maker called us up and said, ‘We have an older workforce… What are the chances of us partnering up?’”

And that’s what the school has done, adding new employers and more students each year. The work-based learning program requires participants be on track to graduate. Furthermore, employers who want to hire a student agree to do so only after the student receives a high school diploma.

While the goal is to get students who want to work hired, “It’s definitely not a given” that they will get a job offer, Linker said.

Initially, he thought it might be geared toward students who were not college-bound, but he’s since discovered it’s for anybody. Some of the employers retain students after graduation and offer tuition reimbursement. This is the case with Hughes, who receives tuition-reimbursement from Mark-Maker for his courses at Davenport University.

Mark Fellows (Kelloggsville High School class of 1981) pitched the idea to Mark-Maker, his employer of 35 years, to recruit talent from his alma mater

The real world

This year, 37 of the 150 seniors in the class of 2019 expressed interest in the work-based learning program. The placement process is methodical as Linker assesses student interests, arranges tours of participating companies, and matches students and employers for interviews. Twenty students found a match this fall, and more hope to be matched next semester.

All positions are paid, Linker said, at $11 to $13 hourly.

“I’ve yet to have a student that doesn’t enjoy it. The chance to get into the workforce and be paid to do something and learn a skill…? It’s a huge plus,” he said.

Linker said that as students learn the job, they often realize the answer to an age-old question asked in classrooms: “How is this going to help me in the real world?” They begin to see how geometry and mathematics skills can be applied on the job. The students have embraced the work opportunity, he said.

“I really like it. It’s fun coming in here every single day. I could definitely turn this into a career,” said Kamrin Zube, a KHS senior working in the die shop at Mark-Maker.

Austin Schmidt, a 2018 graduate of Kelloggsville, found permanent employment at Mark-Maker after being placed with the company as a senior

A nice long courtship

Employers give the work-based learning program high marks, too.

Mark-Maker consultant Tom Stanfield made the well-timed call that started the partnership at the suggestion of diemaker Mark Fellows, a 1981 KHS graduate and 35-year employee of the company.

“Hiring somebody in the normal fashion is almost like getting married on a blind date,” Stanfield said. “You spend two or three hours together and say, ‘Hey, come spend the rest of your life with me.’ It’s kind of stupid. With an internship or in this case, a co-op, you get a whole semester or maybe two, and they know if they like us and we know if they’ve got the right skill sets — it’s such a better way to hire.”

Mark-Maker’s entry-level turnover rate has gone from 80 percent to zero since the partnership began, Stanfield said. They no longer need to recruit, as they have found plenty of talent through the program. Having students in the building has also been great for morale, he said.

“You get all that youth and all that energy. Yeah, they have to learn some things — you’ve got to come to work on time, you don’t text in the middle of the day — but the kids are learning constantly and I love the way they energize the older employees.”

Kelloggsville’s Work Experience Coordinator John Linker with Tom Stanfield of Mark-Maker

More growth in sight

Linker believes we’ll see more of these sorts of programs in the near future, thanks to Michigan’s Marshall Plan for Talent, signed into law in June. The plan devotes $100 million to career-oriented school programs and training students for high-demand jobs in fields like manufacturing, trades, IT, and healthcare, including $59 million in innovation grants. Linker said Kelloggsville is part of a talent consortium that is applying for some of those funds.

He anticipated placing  30-40 students in the program next semester. While the focus so far has been manufacturing and skilled trades, he hopes to make inroads in technology and health services.

“I see it taking off and doing really well.”

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Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza hails from Lansing and has worked in the Grand Rapids area as a reporter, freelance writer, and communicator since graduating from Aquinas College in 2003. She feels privileged to cover West Michigan's public schools and hopes to shed a little light on the amazing things happening there through her reporting.

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