More than three dozen Buhler High School teachers traded classrooms for factory floors Monday as they learned firsthand about manufacturing in Hutchinson.

The teachers, counselors and principals listened to presentations and toured the plants of Collins Industries, Kuhn Krause Inc. and Superior Boiler Works in a daylong in-service aimed at informing them about job opportunities for their students and some of the skills students need to land – and keep – those jobs.

The tours were the result of an earlier “workforce town hall” in June when manufacturers met with local educators to talk about their needs and what schools could better do to promote local jobs, said Abby Stockebrand, Economic Development Manager with GreaterHutch.

“After that, the Buhler High School principal reached out to us to offer high school teachers time on their in-service day,” Stockebrand said.

“We have really good training partners in Reno County for ones already on this career path,” Stockebrand said, including the Hutchinson Career and Technical Education Academy at Hutchinson High and Hutchinson Community College programs. “But for those who fall through the gap, who don’t know if they want to go to a four-year college or go right into a career, who are more unaware, teachers are on the front line of that community and telling the potential workforce that there are careers available in Reno County."

“We want to make sure there’s not a disconnect between what employers need and what educators know is available,” she said. “There is a lot of opportunity in Reno County and we want to make sure to tell the story about those career paths, to make sure educations who have the future workforce in their classrooms know about.”

Important lesson

All teachers at Buhler, including various coaches, were required to participate unless they had other conflicts.

The reason, said Buhler Principal Michael Ellegood, is that teachers and coaches often see interests or talents in their students’ parents or the students themselves might not, and if aware of the opportunities – and needs required to secure them – they can intelligently talk to their students about them.

“In the spring we go through individuals plans of study with the kids and their parents,” Ellegood said. “This is showing us different paths and opportunities for work.”

The Chamber is working with other area schools to schedule like tours in the future.

“We found the sooner you get to them, the more influence you have on kids,” said Eddie Smith, Kuhn Krause director of operations. “A lot of them don’t understand that manufacturing is not the dirty, nasty job it was in the past. What we’re looking for is to change their attitudes about it as a career, and let them know you can make some good money in manufacturing.”

The presenters introduced the teachers to the vast array of jobs available in a plant like Kuhn Krause, which involves not just manufacturing production, but engineering, computer programing and accounting, for example.

The plant needs workers now, but it will require even more in the future, Smith said.

“For each innovation, the more money we put into it, the more people we’re going to need to run that equipment,” he said. “More innovation means more skills and higher pay. We need to fill those jobs. The projection is by 2020 there will be 2 million vacant manufacturing jobs nationwide.”

“At Kuhn Krause, we have a lot of different options for people to develop their career, whether it’s welding, machining, the analytical side, sales or management,” Smith said. “We’re not just heavy manufacturing and production. There’s also the planning side of production and accounting. There’s wide opportunity within a lot of production facilities.”

Something she picked up from the tours at both Collins and Kuhn Krause, said Journalism teacher Sarah Berblinger, was the need for workers to be trainable.

“Learning doesn’t stop when you leave school,” she said. “You need to upgrade your skills continually. Training is important, but being able to learn is also. You can’t stand still; you have to keep current.”

Different skills

Throughout their tour, Smith repeatedly pointed out how the company has improved its production, both in upgrading equipment to do things faster and better – it has spent more than $20 million on technology since 2000 – but also in realigning operations to produce things more efficiently.

Robotics, including welding robots, have been installed in several parts of the production. That didn't eliminate welding jobs, but instead allowed those workers to do other tasks that can’t be done by machines, Smith said. An employee programs the robots and can control operations using a joystick.

In another part of the plant, Smith explained how completed parts are scanned to make sure they meet specifications. Hand inspection and measuring that used to take four days can now be done in 10 to 15 minutes, he said. To program the equipment, however, requires some knowledge in probability and statistics, “not a lot of which is taught in schools,” Smith said.

Businesses are continually trying to problem solve just like that, Berblinger noted.

“That’s a skill we need to teach, how to think critically and figure out how to do things better,” she said. “Students need to learn to collaborate, but also to be accountable, to care about the integrity of what they produce.”

Smith advised the teachers to let their students know “any student who wants to come out, they are more than welcome,” and that company officials were happy to visit the schools to “continue to get students engaged early enough.”

“Our starting wage is an average $15 per hour, and employees can make $22 to $23 per hour,” Smith said. “It’s a good time to get into manufacturing. We’re trying to grow a workforce that skipped a generation. We have people in their 30s and some in their 50s and early 60s nearing retirement. It’s a good time to get into a career where if you work hard you can move up.”