MOUNT PLEASANT — Noah Salchow, a junior at Academies of Racine-Case (Case High School) SME PRIME program, 7345 Washington Ave., has learned welding and is now getting a hands-on education in the repair and maintenance of the highly technical, automated equipment found in many area factories.
“I’ve found it really interesting,” he says. “I’ll just have to see where it all takes me.”
Salchow is among 48 students enrolled in the machine-repair career pathway at Case. They’re learning the computer programming that makes automated industrial equipment work. The students also learn how to put together and take apart technical mechanical systems.
The skills those students will develop are highly prized by manufacturing sector employers. That’s why the SME Education Foundation, the philanthropic arm of SME (formerly Society of Manufacturing Engineers), has launched its second SME PRIME (Partnership Response in Manufacturing Education) program in the Racine Unified School District.
“Partner is the keyword,” Ron Scozzari, SME educational programs manager, said at a presentation and tour held at Case on Friday afternoon. “Equipment, instructor training, curriculum, scholarship opportunities all come about through our partnerships with local funders.”
Six local manufacturers – Butter Buds, E.C. Styberg, Twin Disc, Plastic Parts, Putzmeister America and SC Johnson – provided funding for the SME PRIME program at Case. Funding also came from the Racine Community Foundation and the Green Bay Packers Foundation.
Closing a gaping skills gap
The SME Education Foundation and its funders are trying to make sure there are enough skilled workers available to fill job openings created as workers retire or leave.
Research by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) shows that the lack of skilled labor could result in 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030. In the organization’s most recent quarterly Outlook Survey – released in September – 76.1 percent of executives polled cited “attracting and retaining a quality workforce” as among the biggest problems faced by manufacturing companies.
The SME PRIME program started at Case about three years ago through a contact made with Scott Wyma, one of the school’s technical education teachers. SME Education Foundation staff then surveyed local manufacturing employers to learn what skills they were seeking in employees. Based on the survey findings, Case’s manufacturing careers pathway was changed from one based on CNC (computer numerical control) machining to machine repair.
The new pathway of classes started in the 2021-22 school year. Wyma, who ran machine shops, did welding and held other manufacturing jobs before his teaching career, said that the current 48 students are spread among three graduating classes. More than half – 25 students to be exact – are earning dual credits through Gateway Technical College.
“I was really lucky. I was doing maintenance repair when I was a teenager,” he said. “I got to learn hands-on.”
Wyma hopes that exposure to technology will spark that same interest in his students today. “As a teacher, I’m helping students to draft careers,” he said.
The one-semester classes in Case’s machine-repair pathway – Mechatronics and Mechanical Skills – combine lectures, video instruction and hands-on learning. Students have also taken field trips to see the production facilities of local manufacturers like E.C. Styberg and Twin Disc.
The COVID-19 pandemic made the hands-on aspects of technical education a challenge, but Wyma is optimistic that student interest and enrollment will grow. “I think it’s going to gain traction,” he said.
The only hurdle at Case is the physical space available for the manufacturing-related classes, said Wyma. He hopes that can be resolved over time.
Academies model a good fit for tech
The Racine Unified School District (RUSD) adopted the careers academies model for Case, Park and Horlick high schools in the fall of 2016. Academies are defined as small learning communities that provide students with real-world experience in careers of their choice.
Students explore career options during eighth and ninth grades. In the tenth-grade year, they select a “pathway”, which is a sequence of courses that are designed to both help students prepare for a specific career area and meet the mandatory requirements for high school graduation.
“The Academies structure pairs very well with PRIME,” said Joe Kann, a manufacturing consultant and former Rockwell Automation executive who sits on the SME Education Foundation board. “I’m optimistic that it will do very well in Racine.”
Lighting a spark
The SME PRIME investment is capable of lighting a spark in students. Jeff Miller, RUSD’s deputy chief of school, has seen it.
SME PRIME funded a robotic arm and a robotics instructor at the Academies of Park a few years ago. Miller, who was formerly Park’s principal, told of a former student who admittedly didn’t have much direction until he started dabbling in robotics.
By the student’s junior year, he started an internship at local manufacturer InSinkErator and by his senior year had an opportunity to launch a career in robotics engineering with his employer helping to pay for it, Miller said.
“This student left high school at the age of 18 knowing exactly what he wanted to do,” he said. “I know what a big deal it was when it (SME PRIME) came to Park. I know it’s going to be an important asset here.
Praise for SME PRIME
Manufacturing executives who spoke at Friday’s event praised the SME PRIME program model, which is in place at 81 high schools in 22 states.
“SME is very selective in placing these programs. Racine’s deep manufacturing heritage played an important role,” said Kann. “Manufacturing, by every definition, has become a high-tech space. It’s absolutely critical that we create this kind of exposure for our students.”
Ryan Brath, president and chief operating officer of Fischer USA, a Racine producer of high-speed spindles used in precision machine tools, said that the education and skills training that starts in middle and high schools continues throughout workers’ careers. So do job opportunities.
“As education changes, we’re seeing that requirement for a four-year degree go away because there is so much you have to keep learning,” he said. “If you’re learning by doing, apprenticeship is the way to go. As we’re re-shoring and bringing things back (to the United States), we have a need for more and more skilled people.”
Manufacturers like Twin Disc (a global maker of clutches and power transmissions) recognize that they must invest in people at the same time they’re investing in new products and new markets, added Greg Mueller, director of strategic marketing at Twin Disc and an adjunct professor at Carthage College.
“Our 21st Street (Racine) factory is the center of Twin Disc’s global manufacturing,” he said. “The team at 21st Street is anxious to get into the schools and anxious to have students experience our factory.”
Hailey Webb, principal at Case’s Academy of Computer Science, Education and Tech Services, said that in talking with educational colleagues around the state, she’s found RUSD’s careers academies model is enviable.
“We’re lightyears of many, many other districts,” she said.
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