Spring semester starts this week, and most college students will struggle to get back into the habit of a structured schedule after a month of vacation. But not six Whitefish Bay area students: they’re headed back to school with several weeks of valuable work experience at longstanding local manufacturing companies. (And they have the added bonus of extra money in their pocket.)
Noah started as a press operator at Engel Tool and Forge over the summer and came back to work during his winter break. Since 1923, Engel Tool and Forge has been engineering and manufacturing solutions for customers.
Jen worked as a molding operator at Molded Dimensions. The company has molded rubber and cast polyurethane products since 1954.
At Grover Corporation, twins Xander and Josh did manual labor, including painting, inventory organization and deburring while Jack worked on the machines, sorting and doing quality inspection. Their classmate Betsy assisted several departments in the office. Grover Corporation has manufactured custom piston rings for hydraulic applications since 1929.
For the Whitefish Bay students, the firsthand exposure to a manufacturing environment enlightened them to how a large portion of Americans work on a daily basis.
Noah recalled his first day on the job. In addition to the usual nervous questions (How am I going to impress my boss?) he found himself asking new questions: Will I remember all the safety procedures? How will I earn the respect of my coworkers who come from a much different background than me?
Working in an environment out of their comfort zone, the students quickly picked up on the traits necessary to succeed on the job: timeliness, following directions, and respecting safety protocols. While most teenagers work in retail, food service, or other service-industry jobs, the students found value in learning about the complex and highly-structured processes that a manufacturing company runs on.
“I never realized how intricate a factory was,” remarked Betsy. “I liked getting a behind-the-scenes look at a company like this. Before this, I never even knew what a piston was.”
Charles Engel, President and Owner of Engel Tool and Forge, says this is a reason his company supports employing students. “We’re bringing more manufacturing back to the US, and it’s important to make something rather than relying on being a service industry.” He added that it takes a certain curiosity about how things are made to succeed in a job like this.
Hiring college students on a temporary basis was a huge benefit for the companies as well.
With many industry employers finding themselves in a skilled-labor shortage, mundane tasks tend to fall to the wayside as more pressing projects take precedent. A student can help complete much of that work.
At Grover Corporation, Betsy was able to do scanning, filing, and data entry that freed up other office workers for more difficult projects.
At Molded Dimensions, Jen’s time on the molding press gave the regular molding operator the opportunity to be cross-trained on another piece of equipment.
The work might be challenging, but the lessons learned are invaluable. For one, the experience is a small slice of what adulthood beyond college will look like.
“It gives them a taste of what it means to show up every day,” remarked Alan Brown, Chief Operating Officer at Grover Corporation. “This is what your first job is going to be like; you’re going to come in at the bottom end and have to learn basic tasks. This is what it takes.”
Mike Katz, President at Molded Dimension, agrees. “They’re learning soft skills about interpersonal interaction that will help in their careers.”
The students are adding a number of soft skills to their resume, including time management, taking directions, developing strong work ethic, respecting safety procedures, collaboration and teamwork.
But there’s a deeper investment these employers have in the students. They hope the experience in manufacturing will give them a new perspective about how things are made.
“This is what America is built on – manufacturing,” said Brown. “Manufacturing creates products. You can actually see durable products being made that will go into things that make a difference.”
Jen is able to take her experience at Molded Dimensions back to college to help her in her Engineering degree.
But what about the other 5 students who are majoring in subjects like Business, Biology, English, and Government? What benefit will this manufacturing work experience have on their careers?
Noah recalled interviewing for a job on campus. “They asked me, ‘Do you have any experience working in a diverse environment? Have you ever had to step out of your comfort zone? What are some times you had to problem solve at work?’ I kept thinking of all these examples of my time at Engel that I could use!”
In her time at the office, Betsy said she was able to work with several different departments to learn new skills she can add to her resume, like working with Excel spreadsheets, creating invoices, and getting a more solid grasp of how a business is run.
These students already stood out from their peers by working over winter break. But a job in manufacturing will stand out even more. And when many college students are all vying for the same jobs after graduation, a diverse work experience might be the deciding factor in landing their dream job.
Katz encourages this for students. “Do something different or interesting. As someone who hires engineers, it’s amazing the little things on the resume that we latch onto. Everyone applying for your job has the same resume, so do something that sets you apart.”
And who knows, a temporary work experience in manufacturing may be enough to spark interest in a new career path or move the students to share about the benefits of a manufacturing career with their peers.
At the very least, it provides exposure to the work it takes to create the very items that run this country. And that new perspective will remain with these students for the rest of their careers.