LIGONIER — With job vacancies in manufacturing becoming a growing concern locally, Carlex Glass went back to school at West Noble Middle School to plant a seed.
The glass fabrication company partnered with the school and its engineering and 3-D printing class to bring representatives into the classroom once a week during the first trimester of this school year to show practical applications of what seventh- and eighth-grade students were learning in class.
Industrial technology teacher Jeremy Merrifield described the relationship as a “natural fit,” as students receive hands-on experience in engineering from those in the profession, and Carlex gets the chance to show the opportunities its industry provides and break any preconceived notions surrounding plant work.
“This is a course that they took because they’re really interested, or it’s just something they wanted to do. In the future, this may be a decision point for them on a career choice, so we want to give them information that can help them make those choices in the future,” Carlex human resources manager Larry Gough said. “(We) let them understand what the opportunities are around here and how the things they’re learning can relate to a future career.”
It’s been an eye-opening experience for a lot of his students, even those who may have parents or family members who work at Carlex or at other local manufacturing facilities, Merrifield said.
The program also gives them a leg up on those who choose to go into industry after high school, because they’re starting their education and training early.
“We need to expose them as early as we possibly can to all different aspects. Who knows if they’re going to use it, they may not, but the earlier we get them interested in it, the sooner they can pursue that track when they get to high school, because there are different tracks you can take when you get to that high school level,” Merrifield said. “I just think it’s the best time, and a lot of them are still eager and want to learn new things. It’s nice to have that.”
Carlex mold shop supervisor Jim Miel and controls and automation supervisor Alan Hesseling have worked off and on with the students over the past six weeks and are impressed by the engagement and work that’s come from the partnership.
Joking that they wish they would have had the same computers and technology when they were in middle school, the supervisors have shown the students how to use their 3-D printers effectively to make pulley parts, as well as how to measure items with calipers, something not usually taught until later in a student’s education.
“Back in my day, you didn’t see something like this. You didn’t touch a computer until senior year,” Hesseling, who has been with Carlex more than 20 years, said. “In grade school, they’re doing 3-D printing. It’s impressive that they’re starting this early. To show them these types of things and then give the kids an idea of what the career path is for engineering or machining and different things, that’s nice that the school is making that kind of investment.”
Also a 20-year veteran of the industry, Miel thinks back on his school days when engineering was taught with paper and pencil on a drafting table, and he hopes the partnership between Carlex and the school shows that there’s more to manufacturing than a monotony of simple tasks. There’s machinery, automation and robotics that need engineers to repair or make their workings more efficient through problem solving.
“There’s more than just production work in Ligonier. It’s more than picking up a piece of glass and moving it, or welding a muffler or something. There’s more to it,” said Miel, who enjoyed passing on his knowledge to the students and working with them one-on-one. “You can definitely tell the kids who are engaged, but all of them, from the parts I’ve seen, they really impressed me … They’re definitely applying what they’re seeing.”
The students will finish the program this week with a tour of the Carlex plant, and Merrifield is optimistic that the success of this experience with Carlex will prompt other manufacturing companies to come into the classroom to teach students more about the industry and its expectations of its workforce.
“(Students are) seeing what they’re making here, how it relates to what they’re making out there, because we’re doing the exact same thing, only these kids are way ahead because they’re starting when they’re in seventh grade versus when they get out of school,” Merrifield said. “It’s an eye-opener for some of them.”
This real-world view of the work, not just as an idea but as a tangible item they can hold in their hand, is what Gough and Carlex are striving for in visiting the middle school.
It’s a recruitment tool for the manufacturer, while benefiting students regardless of what their eventual career path turns out to be.
“I’m recruiting for immediate need, and I’m recruiting for a future pipeline of talent,” Gough said. “I like to partner with the schools because we have a lot to offer, and I think the kids here have a lot to offer, smart bright kids, so why not do it?”