Barry County has a deep history in manufacturing, with manufacturing jobs still making up nearly 35 percent of all jobs in the county today. But there's a need for more employees and a trend toward reminding students of options other than just a traditional four-year college degree.
TKHS students joined in the experience with other Barry County high school students in touring six different companies – ChemQuest and Middleville Tool and Die in Middleville; Hastings Fiberglass, Flexfab, and Tri-Clor in Hastings; and TNR Machine in Dowling.
Students marveled at the amount of technology incorporated into all of the machines and were amazed at how the companies connected with customers throughout the country and even internationally. But mostly the tours opened their eyes to possible future careers.
"It's good just to get a look at what's out here," said Thornapple Kellogg High School student Kole Kelley.
Travis Alden, president of Barry County Chamber of Commerce, said manufacturing week, now in its third year, is growing by leaps and bounds. The first year, Alden said, only one company was involved. Last year, three companies took part and four school districts. This year six companies and five school districts were involved with about 300 students participating.
“It’s really become sort of a national effort to expose the community and especially high school students about manufacturing,” Alden said. “We have such a rich history in manufacturing here in Barry County and we want to showcase it as best we can.”
TK student Mason Moore said he always knew Middleville Tool and Die existed, but never actually knew what it made in the big building on Patterson Road.
"It's very cool. They have some giant presses all working differently," he said.
Junior Kayla Hull said she's not sure what she wants to do after high school, but getting to look at some manufacturing options is helping give her ideas.
"It's great to see how things are made," she said.
Students visiting Middleville Tool and Die were greeted by a TK alumni. Alex Koetsier is a 2012 TK graduate and started working at Middleville Tool and Die full time in the design manufacturing department after completing degrees in CAD drafting and tool design and product development from Ferris State University.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do until my senior year in high school," Koetsier told the students.
He said his grandfather designed a locking bolt for the Gemini Spacecraft and he decided he, too, would like to possibly design something that leaves a lasting impact.
Company officials also talked with students, letting them know there are many manufacturing careers in the engineering fields – manufacturing, welding, product design and electrical, to name a few.
Skilled trades are another option that do not require a four-year college degree. Some of those types of careers include CNC machinists, maintenance and welding techs.
ChemQuest president Dave Scharphorn encouraged students to follow their dreams and realize they can accomplish anything they set their minds to.
Scharphorn told students he started the company out of his home and eventually moved to the Middleville location where he now has more room to grow. He said he wanted to make sure students were open to career options in Barry County.
"If you are willing to work hard enough, you can do anything," he said. "This gives you a chance to open your eyes up and see what's available."
He said his company is looking for workers who can show up every day on time, be willing to learn, and be able to stay off their cellphones when they are supposed to be working.
Representatives from the different companies encouraged students to look for scholarships, internship programs and apprenticeships to help pay for furthering their education.
Alden said it's important for Barry County to continue providing qualified employees for manufacturing careers.
"There are companies here looking to expand and companies considering moving here, but there is a limited workforce available,” Alden said. “The number one question potential companies ask when they consider moving here is if there is a skilled workforce available. Our number one commodity is a ready and qualified workforce."
In 2016, 35 percent of all jobs in Barry County were in manufacturing. That comes out to about 3,500 jobs total, Alden said.
Michigan, as a whole, has about 16 percent of all jobs in manufacturing. “We’re almost double that,” said Alden. “Manufacturing is very important to Barry County.”
While education is important, he said, there is also a need for skilled trades, and a four-year traditional college is not always the best fit for everyone.
“For the past several years, everyone has been pushed in the direction of the traditional four-year college track, but we’ve sort of lost sight of our bread-and-butter manufacturing sector,” he said. “Basically, right now if you have a good work ethic, can show up every day on time and are willing to learn, you can make a very good living and career.”