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Willmar, Minn. area, students get a look at the area's future job market

Michael Floren, left, and Nathaniel Erickson, center, students at Willmar High School, chat with Jeremy Hall, an instructor with the Ridgewater College welding program, during an event that exposed students to careers in manufacturing. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

WILLMAR -- It may not have been love at first sight, but the flames of a long-term relationship were certainly being fanned when area high school students came face to face with local manufacturers seeking a match-up of skills and jobs.

As part of the recent manufacturing showcase conducted in Willmar, representatives from seven local manufacturers took turns talking about their companies, the opportunities for careers and the skills employees need.

Each company who participated in the showcase had a maximum of seven minutes to flash through their PowerPoint presentations to sell themselves and to sell kids on the idea of considering a future in manufacturing.

"Speed dating," is how Jean Spaulding, assistant director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, described the Oct. 23 showcase in Willmar.

"It's a great way for schools and the industry sectors -- manufacturers -- to develop a relationship," said Spaulding.

She said most high school students don't realize that, with the proper training, they could work for "world-renowned, leading companies that reside right here."

It's kind of like marrying the girl next door.

"They don't even think about it because it's home," said Spaulding.

Manufacturers have repeatedly delivered the message that there are not enough skilled workers to fill the jobs their companies have open, said Mike Boehme, dean of instruction at Ridgewater College.

The days of low-tech manufacturing jobs are long gone to low-paying overseas markets, said Boehme. Manufacturing jobs here require highly skilled employees.

Ridgewater is working with manufacturers to try to fill that "skills gap," said Boehme, adding that graduates who receive training to "work in the highly automated, high-tech manufacturing jobs of today" will find jobs.

That includes young workers looking for a start in a career or older individuals who need additional training.

"Whether they're 19 years old or 59 years old -- if they can do the job, they're clearly wanted by the manufacturers," said Boehme.

"Manufacturers will hire everyone who graduates," said Jeremy Hall, who teaches welding at Ridgewater and was busy talking to a group of Willmar High School students during a break in the showcase presentations last week at MinnWest Technology Campus in Willmar.

"We have jobs for every student we get," said Hall, adding that the starting wage for those welding jobs typically falls in the $15- to $28-an-hour range.

Boehme said it's important for job seekers to realize that if they start out as a welder or machine operator, it doesn't mean their career has to end there.

He said most manufacturers like to promote from within and that, with additional training that's sometimes paid for by the employer, workers can move into engineering, quality control or supervisory roles.

Manufacturers want people with the ability to "solve problems," said Boehme.

Spaulding said working in the manufacturing industry is not a narrow field but is "incredibly diverse" and includes integrated fields of research, product development and marketing.

She said manufacturers that come to the EDC are pleading for a "trained work force" and people who are able to solve problems, learn multiple areas of work and work as a team. "It's not just doing one thing now," she said.

Jay Halliday, who works for Nova Tech Engineering where poultry equipment is produced, told the kids that the building where the high-tech machines are made is "awesome" because of the "loud machines." But he also talked about the technology and computer skills required, as well as the advantage of knowing a second language for his job that includes traveling around the world to service the machines made in Willmar.

Mitch Schueler from Epitopix gave the students a brief lesson in biology that is used at the Willmar facility, which is on the cutting edge of developing animal vaccines.

Robin Kopel, from Jennie-O Turkey Store, talked about the variety of jobs "right in your backyard" with a company that grosses $17 million in annual sales.

Jeff Pattison, president of West Central Steel, showed pictures of huge laser and plasma cutters his employees operate that slice through steel "like butter." He won the "wow" award by showing a photo of an indoor snow ski hill built in Dubai with steel distributed by the Willmar company.

Besides hearing presentations from local manufacturers during the showcase event, the students had opportunities to talk one on one with company representatives. Students also took tours of several manufacturing facilities.

Many high schools, faced with the responsibility of equipping students with state academic standards and limited funds, have reduced or eliminated industrial technology classes. Boehme said he's seeing "some resurgence" of technical classes in high schools and that colleges are "trying to partner with high schools to fill that gap."

Box info:

Kandiyohi County is home to 75 manufacturers with more than 3,200 employees that earned just under $130 million in 2011. Manufacturing businesses paid 17 percent of the county's total wages in 2011. Kandiyohi County manufacturers have a constant demand for highly-skilled, semi-skilled and entry-level employees.

Source: Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission


Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750