School-manufacturer program aims to show students there’s a future in manufacturing

From his office window in Charlestown, John Olsen sees Springfield, Vt., where 8,000 people used to work in the machine tool industry back in the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s.”And now I don’t think there’s 50 people in the machine tool industry in Springfield,” said Olsen, president of Whelen Engineering Inc.But Olsen, now in his 55th year in manufacturing, isn’t willing to accept this as reality either for Whelen or the future of advanced manufacturing in the United States.So with the help of retired Claremont School District Superintendent Jacqueline Guillette, Scott Pope, an instructor at the Sugar River Valley Technical Center in Claremont, and others, they’ve developed a curriculum for a hands-on program that allows local high school students to get into the factory and learn what manufacturing is today, and that there may be a future in it.One group of students from Stevens High School in Claremont took the course last fall. Word-of-mouth interest was so great that by the time the second course rolled around earlier this year, the size of the class doubled from seven students to 14. The program also has buy-in from the nearby Fall Mountain Regional School District, which is paying to have two of its students participate in the program.So confident are they in this curriculum that they are giving away the curriculum they’ve developed for free to any interested takers looking to start a program.Olsen likes to call the program “the Little League of Manufacturing,” with the idea being to hook kids early on to the benefits of pursuing a career in advanced manufacturing, similar to the way they are exposed to sports at a young age.Aside from being a nice thing to do for the community, Olsen said it’s really quite crucial for the future of manufacturing in America.There are not even enough trained workers to fill vacant advanced manufacturing positions now, said Whelen, let alone in the future. And since most young people have grown up with the notion that manufacturing is dead, they aren’t looking to it as a viable career option.”We’ve lost two generations, maybe three generations, of people who think of manufacturing as a way of life, as a way to get into for their lifetime,” Olsen said. “If you want to keep your company going for the next 50 to 100 years, you better get into this type of a program or you’re not going to have anybody working.”According to Justin Slattery, business resource specialist with the state Division of Economic Development, “the reality is that manufacturing has really dramatically changed in the last decade or so. It now means high-paying jobs, pristine air-conditioned environments, state-of-the-art. It’s also consistently reaching into the new technology.”Expansion in the worksFor the program at Whelen, which designs and develops warning and signaling devices for vehicles, Olsen and his supporters were able to get a waiver from the state Department of Labor in order to allow 9th- and 10th-graders to do actual work on the factory floor.Pope, who helped design the curriculum, said the program is largely job-shadowing, but the kids do get to do quite a bit of hands-on work.They start out the program in the classroom learning, among other things, what Whelen does, how it’s done and the rules of the workplace. They also learn, Pope said, how to interview, fill out a job application and be successful once they get the job.Ultimately, they spend about 31 of the 42-day class working in each of the seven or eight departments at Whelen. For a mid-term exam, they get to install parts that they’ve made into school district vehicles.Pope said the group is already working on expanding the program so the next class can do even more at the factory.”We’re going for the highest level of experience we can go for,” he said.And it won’t stop there, Olsen said. Already there’s a middle school program in the works as well as a more advanced program for the five students who have been through the program and want to do it again.And there’s been interest in the program in Vermont and Connecticut as well, according to Guillette and Olsen.They also pointed out that the program is something that even small manufacturing companies can do if they work together to provide students with the broadest range of experience.A big help in the process is the free curriculum on how to implement the program. It shows what the budget should look like, how to transport students, rules and regulations, and even the motions and steps school boards have to take to implement the program.”The idea is, transfer this idea to your place of business, substitute your product or your services,” Guillette said. “This (book) is a roadway for people and this will cut down the costs tremendously.”My interest was to show kids that there was a future in manufacturing, and it’s already gone beyond that,” Olsen said, adding that the curriculum and program are “Whelen’s contribution to the future of manufacturing.”