Manufacturing week offers students a chance to explore the industry

CASSOPOLIS — This week, businesses throughout Berrien and Cass counties hosted high school students from around the area to show them why manufacturing jobs could be a future career for them.

This was all part of Kinexus’ Manufacturing Week, where area students toured local companies and learned more about what working in manufacturing entails.

In total, 11 local tri-county businesses will participate in Manufacturing week, as well as 21 schools.

On Tuesday, a handful of Dowagiac Union High School students toured ICM Products in Cassopolis, and Marcellus High School students went to Duo Form Plastics in Edwardsburg. Brandywine and Niles high schools and Modineer in Niles also participated.

In past years, this event was a single day, but Kinexus felt it was necessary to extend it to a week, particularly in southwest Michigan.

“For the past five years, we’ve done Manufacturing Day, which is a national event, and it’s always on the first Friday of October,” said Kristin Bivens, brand coordinator at Kinexus. “But this year, to meet the needs of both our schools and our employers, we decided to make it a whole week.”

This allows Kinexus to bring groups of students to smaller manufacturers.

“Last year, we had around 1,200 students and not that many manufacturers can fit that many kids,” Bivens said. “This gives us the opportunity to kind of spread out and get closer to the actual schools.”

She said that the week-long event is important because manufacturing is one of the leading industries in southwest Michigan. Throughout Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties, the manufacturing industry contributes $2.9 billion in Gross Regional Product per year.

Yet, Bivens said the workforce is getting older. She said the average of the manufacturing workforce is 45.4. Overall, 71 percent of manufacturing workers are over the age of 35.

“Manufacturing is one of our largest industries in southwest Michigan, and the workforce is currently getting closer to retirement age,” Bivens said. “We’re going to lose a lot of the skilled trade works that we have, so we really need to keep a talent pipeline going. [Manufacturing] has kind of gotten a bad reputation as being dirty and dying and we’re trying to show kids that’s not the case.”

While this problem exists throughout the United States, it is worse in Michigan.

“I think one of the biggest challenges we see, and this is not just limited to Michigan, but it’s definitely exacerbated in Michigan, is in the 2008 recession the state led the way in Uhauls leaving the state,” said Mark O’Reilly, a business account manager with Kinexus. “We lost a lot of young families, and with them we lost our future workforce, so one of the biggest challenges for our employers right now is how do we find those people.”

Overall, the business owners seem excited about the opportunity to meet and speak with high school students about manufacturing.

ICM Products, Inc. CEO Jim Cottington was thrilled that students from Dowagiac came to the company’s Cassopolis location, and he even tagged along on one of the tours himself to help explain why manufacturing can make a viable job.

“People look at [manufacturing] and think is not a reasonable career path, and that’s just not fair,” Cottington said. “There’s a lot of really good jobs out there, from the operators we have on the floor, they make good money, to the chemists, to the quality assurance folks, to accounting. There’s all these things that go into supporting manufacturing.”

In total, the company has about 60 employees, and about 20 of them focus on manufacturing. According to Bivens, these are jobs that students can do immediately after they graduate from high school.

“It’s important to let the students know that they can get a good career, make money and have a livable wage without getting into debt by going to college, if that’s not what they want to do,” Bivens said. “A lot of places offer apprenticeships where they will pay for you to go to school and for you to work.”

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