- Ryan Saagman, AutoMatrix program manager, (in front at far right) talks about the manufacturing company during a tour following the Launch U press conference
- Jon Dyer, AutoMatrix businesses development and engineering representative, offers a tour of the facility to Launch U press conference attendees
- Wyoming-based AutoMatrix, the robotics division of Artiflex, is a clean, high-tech facility where certified, skilled workers are in high demand
Ready to Launch: New Early College to Boost Student Careers
Kent ISD, GRCC, Industry Team up for Hands-on Programby Erin Albanese
Students interested in careers in manufacturing now have a direct pathway into the workforce, and they can get there with an associate's degree earned tuition-free.
Kent ISD, Grand Rapids Community College and representatives of local manufacturing companies and Kent County area high schools gathered Monday at a Wyoming manufacturer to announce Launch U, a new hands-on early-college opportunity.
Students will receive a specialized associate's degree in mechanical design, tooling and manufacturing technology, or industrial technology, in addition to their high school diploma, with just one additional year. Officials say the arrangement will save students about $10,000 in tuition.
The program, to begin with its first 10th-grade class in September, was created in partnership with GRCC and local businesses, including Wyoming-based AutoMatrix, the robotics division of ArtiFlex, which hosted the announcement. It is open to all students within Kent ISD districts, and is aimed at those with a knack for and interest in hands-on learning, like inventing and building.
Launch U was created to meet the demand for manufacturing jobs and help prepare interested students to fill them.
"We need to ramp up the supply chains in terms of the labor force," said Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff, who noted local business people have expressed the need for more training programs "loud and clear."
"If our economy is to grow in West Michigan, if we are going to have businesses locate here, we need to provide a talented workforce."
Not Enough Skilled Workers
According to information from Talent 2025, a workforce development coalition of West Michigan CEOs, in the design field there is demand for 7,640 workers over the next five years. Average pay is $35.78 per hour. The advanced manufacturing field, where average pay is $20.93 hourly, needs 11,430 people over the next five years.
According to the West Michigan Talent Assessment and Outlook report, published in September 2016, manufacturing continues to be the bread and butter of the region in many ways. West Michigan's largest industry employs over one in five workers, and has added over 33,000 jobs since the end of the recession in 2009.
ArtiFlex CEO Erin Hoffman said company representatives will have opportunities to provide input to Launch U educators, so students are prepared to start working at local manufacturers right after graduation. ArtiFlex needs more machine designers, control engineers, product engineers, die makers and machine builders, he said, stressing, "These jobs in our community are so critical to our future success."
"(Launch U) is about unleashing the potential of our community, of our workforce, of our companies," Hoffman said. "Manufacturing is coming back to this country in a big way, but it doesn't look like it once did. It's not a big old factory that's dangerous and dirty. It's a clean, high-tech environment with passionate, collaborative team members."
Incoming GRCC President Bill Pink said Launch U will be a huge benefit to students and have a broad impact. It will save students about $10,000 in tuition, he said.
"They are going to have a tuition-free education that is going to make a difference in the world, that's going to make a difference in West Michigan and right here in Grand Rapids," Pink said. "They will step into good-paying jobs that help them take care of their families, jobs that help them take care of the region. That's what we are looking for."
Caledonia High School Principal Brady Lake said Launch U is a great way to connect students with post-secondary opportunities, which are now necessary for skilled trade jobs that have evolved into robotics and machine programming. He said he's excited his students will have the chance to sign up.
"They need a lot more skills than they used to," Lake, a member of the Launch U design team, said. "The 'skilled' in skilled trade is a little different now."
Launch U is the newest GRCC Early/Middle College program. Others include partnerships with Wyoming Public Schools, Cedar Springs Public Schools, Careerline Tech Center and next fall with Ottawa Hills High School.
Introducing Launch U