When he was named president of Humphrey Products in April 2016, Dave Maurer inherited the desk of his recently retired predecessor. Within its drawers, Maurer found a sheaf of papers from 1998 describing a group of industry partners trying to solve a labor shortage. To Maurer’s eyes, the problem read painfully familiar.
“There is a lot that happens when companies go through these business cycles. We gain a lot of momentum during the upturns. When things turn down, we get very short-sighted and we stop a lot of the energy,” Maurer said. He found inspiration from this dilemma and admitted thinking to himself, “You know, we have to persist through this, regardless of the business cycle. These kinds of short-term interruptions shouldn’t interrupt what needs to be very long-term plans for career and tech education and for engaging young people.”
While the need for a deeper labor pool has ebbed and flowed over time, industry’s solution to the problem has evolved. In 2011, a consortium of companies and education institutions started to brainstorm ways to bridge the labor gap in Southwest Michigan. One emerging idea was to funnel interested and qualified middle high and high school students toward technical careers. Most recently, and serving as a kind of capstone of the ongoing effort, the consortium launched a program called MiCareerQuest Southwest. The first MiCareerQuest Southwest took place in February 2016; a second event was held in November 2016 and will be repeated each fall moving forward.
MiCareerQuest Southwest is an interactive, tactile, informational career- and college-readiness fair. It aims to introduce middle and high school students to career options including, but also beyond, the paradigm of college preparatory courses and the path of a four-year liberal arts degree. Over two days in November 2016, 5,000 eighth- and ninth-graders from Kalamazoo County and surrounding school districts descended on the Kalamazoo County Expo Center for a hands-on look at careers in various technical fields. The organizing consortium includes Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency (KRESA), Southwest Michigan First, and Michigan Works! Southwest, among others from the business sector.
Fifty-five employers from four industry areas—Arts & Communication; Business, Technology & Human Services; Engineering & Manufacturing; and Health & Natural Sciences—filled 50,000 square feet of convention center space. Some area employers sponsoring exhibits and demonstrations included Stryker Corporation, Pfizer Inc., Flowserve Corporation, Humphrey Products, Accu-Mold, CSM Group, Borgess|Ascension, Gull Lake Animal Hospital, TowerPinkster, and the Home Builders Association of Western Michigan. Among the exhibits, Duncan Aviation, in partnership with the Western Michigan University (WMU) College of Aviation and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), used an onsite airplane to showcase educational and employment opportunities. WMU’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences displayed a solar car. Demonstrating to students the progression from classroom and hands-on laboratory experiences to the real world, Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC) booths showcased manufacturing and health field program offerings alongside employer booths.
Humphrey Products, a 100-year-old Kalamazoo-based pneumatics manufacturer, was one of the 55 companies at MiCareerQuest Southwest. “One of the things that breaks my heart is seeing some of the levels of kids dropping out of our schools,” Maurer said, shouting over the sound of impact wrenches, generators, pounding nails, and adolescent shrieks at the Expo Center. “I can’t help but think that, by encouraging students uninspired by traditional educational tracks, some of my own children included, to pursue hand-on elements is what would inspire them to stay engaged in school and to persist through school.”
Another firm represented at MiCareerQuest Southwest was Stryker Corporation, with exhibits demonstrating both manufacturing and research. Veronica Baran, a manufacturing engineer at Stryker, paused for a barrage of inquisitive students beside a Power-Load and Power-Pro XT display inside a simulated ambulance. Then she said, “It’s a simulated environment. The whole system there is to simulate what it would look like in an ambulance. This is basically all push-button so an EMS (Emergency Medical Services) attendant wouldn’t have to physically carry a patient anymore. It’s a push of a button to load and unload patients.”
Local firms welcomed the opportunity to communicate directly with curious students and potential future employees.
“It’s really exciting to be able to show the students all these opportunities that are open to them and it’s all local businesses,” Baran said. “We all support Kalamazoo, we work in Kalamazoo, and it’s something that they might not be exposed to normally. They really wanted to know what we do every day, what it took to get there, and what (education) you need. They thought it was neat to have all these boards up here, showing all the different job titles and what it takes to get that job. It was pretty cool to show the students that there are many options and we weren’t just all about engineering.”
Baran exemplified the hope shared by other exhibitors that they could influence young people as they start to make career decisions.
“It’s exciting, because it happened for me,” Baran said. “I left high school with a clear direction knowing what I wanted to do. If I can even get one person thinking outside the box or showing them that they could have a new career choice, it’s worth it. Even just to open their eyes to it, not necessarily to go into engineering if they don’t want to, but just to show them all their options. It’s worth it just to have the conversation with them.”
MiCareerQuest Southwest is a culmination of a five-year effort to merge education and industry in Southwest Michigan. One of the community players at the heart of this intersection is KRESA’s Education for Employment (EFE) curriculum.
“Part of this experience is really exploratory,” said Jason Luke, Program Administrator of KRESA’s EFE. “Our goal is to help kids recognize that they have personal strengths and abilities. Sometimes in education, the young person doesn’t always feel that. When they’re maybe struggling in their math class, but a hands-on young person, they might come out to MiCareerQuest Southwest, build something, and be like, ‘Wow, I get it!’ Or, if they’re interested in healthcare, exposure to applied sciences can help them start to figure out that they want to do something nurturing that’s valuable to helping people. So, the opportunity here at this event is really for young people to interact with professionals and hear from someone who does a job they might have interest in, which is a great thing.”
Luke went on to promote the benefits of the EFE program: “We recognize that, especially in manufacturing, companies are hurting (for workers). They need young people immediately in the skilled trades. Apprenticeship programs, co-ops, summer job interns—all of those are good experiences for young people. These experiences allow them to figure out: ‘Do I want to have a career in engineering manufacturing that could pay for college?’ So, it’s really a great experience for the young person, and it fits the needs of what companies are looking for in our area.”
When Zachary Glascock, 19, was a senior at Vicksburg High School, a shop teacher recommended that he apply for a co-op position at Humphrey Products, which he got. After his co-op, he landed an engineering internship at Humphrey. He is now a sophomore at WMU studying manufacturing engineering. Glascock credits that EFE co-op as a life-altering opportunity.
“Through the co-op, I was able to actually learn the manufacturing process more in-depth, like machine working. Basically everything that I needed to know that I couldn’t learn in a school setting, I learned through my co-op,” Glascock said. “As of right now, I’m an engineering intern at Humphrey, and I’m doing basically what an engineer would. And, I’m really enjoying it. I’m doing a lot of drawing changes, 3D models, software work—it’s what I want to do when I finish my degree.”
Katie Carson, 23, graduated in 2011 from Portage Central High School. Today she works as a Level II medic with Life EMS. She, too, credits KRESA’s EFE for steering her life’s course.
“I’ve always wanted to be in the medical field,” Carson said. “I didn’t really know what I was expecting when I went into it. As I progressed through the class, I realized it was something I wanted to do. As soon as we started doing clinicals and ride-alongs in the ambulance and in the ER, I actually made the decision to not pursue my scholarship with Michigan State and continue to go to KVCC’s paramedic program.”
Shannon Schippers, a guidance counselor at Portage Central Middle School, said the early stages of career planning can start in eighth grade or even earlier. She uses an aptitude assessment tool, called Career Cruising, with her students. Career Cruising is an online application that asks students random questions, then matches them with potential career options. Schippers finds satisfaction in pointing out to students the careers that pop up.
“Sometimes, they’ll tell me, ‘There’s not a day in this world I would do that job.’ I tell them to pull up information on that career to see why it matched that to them,” Schippers said. Students are beginning to speculate about career options, but mostly their focus is a more immediate future. They’re thinking, “I’ve got high school coming up, and at some point I’m going to go to college or at some point I’m going to have a job,” Schippers said.
Schippers confirmed that the MiCareerQuest Southwest event was a huge opportunity for area students. “The more they can get out there and see what’s going on, all the different pathways, and how there are a lot of careers out there, the better,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for them to just see different things that you would not normally see going through school.”
Kate Lindsay is one of the students whom Schippers advises. A confident and bright-eyed eighth grader, Lindsay said she’d like to become a biochemist, but she’s open to other possibilities.
“There are definitely a lot of things that I’ve seen today that have changed my mind on the kind of the path that I want to take,” Lindsay said. “Do I want to take the chemistry path or do I want to take the path of machinery using coding? Or photography and stuff like that using cameras and different materials to build or create things? I will look into those (now) because I know there are a lot of career paths I can take when I’m older. Potentially, what I’m thinking in eighth grade could change from what I’ll be thinking as a senior in high school.”
What it’s really like to be a nurse? A graphic artist? A mechanical engineer? A builder? Or, to manufacture a dashboard for a car or surgical instrument for the operating room? For Southwest Michigan middle and college students like Lindsay, MiCareerQuest Southwest is a place to help them figure that out and for area employers to sway the future talent pipeline in their direction.
To learn more about how you as a parent, employer, or educator can get involved in future MiCareerQuest Southwest events, go to micareerquestsw.org.