Missouri hopes to see an increase in manufacturing employees

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TROY – High school students are learning to prepare for their first jobs while still in school.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce implemented the Dream It. Do It. program in October to involve engineering students in high school with manufacturing careers. 

The president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce Dan Mehan said there are two million jobs that go unfilled because there aren’t enough people with proper qualifications.

“When we go around the state of Missouri, we hear time and time again that there are opportunities out there for people, for kids coming out of school, be it high school, two-year school, or a four-year program. There’s opportunities out there, but the employers just can’t find the skill sets to match up with them. And what Dream It. Do It. seeks to do is to take those kids in the high schools and take them into a manufacturing environment to expose them to potential career paths and opportunities in manufacturing,” Mehan said.

He said entry jobs in manufacturing pay $15,000 more than other starting jobs, and not enough high school students are aware of this opportunity.

The program kicked off during national Manufacturing Day on October 2 at Toyota Bodine in Troy. Chamber officials chose high schools in Lincoln County to be part of the pilot program. Mehan said this was a big step in welcoming manufacturers to Missouri.

“These entities are always looking for capable, talented kids that we may not be touching right now because we’re not thinking that there is opportunity in the manufacturing sectors,” he said. “Kids did not know that this was something out there for them.”

Mehan said it was important for students to learn the changes in manufacturing careers compared to their grandfathers' time.

“Manufacturing isn’t about smoke stacks, it’s about high tech careers,” he said.

External Affairs Specialist for Toyota Bodine Charla Whalen-Mueller said that was what impressed the students who visited the company.

“The environment in which they’re working, it’s very different than what it used to be in terms of the technologies, the facilities themselves. It’s a very different look and feel than what most people have in their mind. There are a lot of myths that are around manufacturing being a dirty environment. It is not such. But perhaps most importantly, the difference is technology today. So much is technological, therefore the skill set needed is different than it was yesterday versus today and tomorrow,” Whalen-Mueller said.

With the changing work environment, Whalen-Mueller also said there is a need to fill unemployment gaps in the field.

“The one challenge that we face, and all manufacturing face, is a huge gap in the available work force for tomorrow,” she said. “We really want kids to see that there is something out there for everyone.”

Showing those opportunities to the students was something teachers at Troy Buchanan High School also wanted to focus on.

Ben Gifford, industrial technology teacher, said at first his students saw the field trip as a way to get out of school, but it quickly turned into a learning experience.

“They don’t understand the manufacturing these days, how much it has changed,” he said. “It makes kids want to learn.” 

Teacher Drew DeManuele said it allowed girls to see manufacturing is not just a man’s job and what they learn in school can help their career. One of his students, Melissa Arnold, agreed with his statement and said she's now considering manufacturing as a career.

Ted Wilkinson, department chair at the school, said the industry has changed so much since he first started out that it also changed his teaching plan.

"Now we've got to teach programming and things like that, it doesn't come natural to many of us. When I was in high school, there weren't any computers at all. Now it's another tool we've got to use to teach as they need to learn it," he said. "They look at us like we're experts, but many times we're learning it right before we have to teach it."

Although the program is just starting out in Missouri, Whalen-Muller said change needs to start with programs like this one.

“The goal of that is to create a workforce of tomorrow," she said. “But what we know, is that that’s not going to fill the enormous gap that we have. What we do understand is we have to start somewhere, and we see a large residual impact from having and hosting days like Manufacturing Day and partnering with programs like Dream It. Do It. We are beginning to plant a seed that has a broad-based impact, if we work as partners to do so.”