Spokane Valley-based Wagstaff Inc. recently launched a program for high school students to explore careers in skilled trades.
Wagstaff launched its four-week production and manufacturing academy earlier this month for incoming high school juniors and seniors to learn about engineering, design, welding, production, assembly and management.
“The goal behind this is to give the kids exposure to the whole manufacturing and production process,” said Wade Larson, director of human resources for Wagstaff. Larson also oversees the academy. “Over the course of four weeks, they are going to experience it all.”
Wagstaff, a family-owned manufacturer that builds custom industrial equipment for aluminum producers, has more than 400 employees worldwide. It works with companies to transform molten aluminum into solid shapes for processing into products like cans, foil and airplane bodies.
Wagstaff’s production and manufacturing academy provides students hands-on experience with product creation, design, stages of production, sales and customer interactions. Students also take field trips to local manufacturing facilities.
As part of the academy’s curriculum, students are tasked with manufacturing birdhouses, boards for beanbag toss games, passive smartphone speakers and cutting boards in a group setting.
They are required to create 25 of each product and sell them to customers.
Students traveled to Quest Integration in Post Falls last week to prepare 3D prototypes of their products, and received production and planning instruction at Hotstart Inc., a manufacturer of engine heating equipment in Spokane Valley.
East Valley High School student Jackson Pratt found out about Wagstaff’s production and manufacturing academy from his wood shop teacher.
Pratt, who enjoys learning how to operate machinery at the academy, is building beanbag toss boards.
“It’s going good so far,” he said, referring to the academy. “I am looking forward to the field trips and seeing different companies and how they operate.”
Central Valley High School junior Arionna Sicilia said she was interested in the academy to learn more about manufacturing.
She enjoys working within a group to create passive smartphone speakers made from wood.
“It’s really great, because everyone has different backgrounds,” she said. “There are very diverse people in each group, which is cool.”
Out of 71 applicants from area school districts, 20 students were accepted into Wagstaff’s academy based on their background and interest in the program.
Students will earn a certificate, a career and technical education credit, and a $2,000 stipend upon completion of the academy.
Larson said technical skills have dropped from curricula at schools, and that’s created a challenge for manufacturing companies to recruit skilled workers.
“We’ve been struggling for years with the talent pool and it’s not going away anytime soon,” Larson said, adding there’s been efforts to recruit and retain engineers but not workers in skilled trades.
Larson said there’s potential for students to graduate from a trade program at a two-year community college debt-free and make an annual salary of more than $45,000 a year.
The Washington State Auditor’s Office indicated in a December 2017 report that there’s a shortage of more than 3,200 employees statewide in production and skilled trades.
Companies reported struggles with recruiting carpenters, electricians, plumbers, sheet metal workers and pipe fitters, the report said.
The construction industry is also facing difficulty in recruiting employees as many older workers are nearing retirement and fewer young adults are opting to pursue construction jobs. More than 78% of construction firms nationwide reported difficulty with finding workers, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.
Wagstaff’s production and manufacturing academy is a partnership between Greater Spokane Inc., Spokane Workforce Council, Mackay Manufacturing Inc., Altek Inc., Unicep Packaging Inc., Quest Integration, Hotstart and area school districts.
While Wagstaff employees are teaching most of the curriculum for the academy, East Valley High School wood shop instructor Bill Close is assisting with production days and Kaiser Aluminum employees are teaching welding to students.
Larson said the production and manufacturing academy evolved from Wagstaff’s participation in the Greater Spokane Inc. Business AfterSchool program, which drew more than 100 students.
He was also inspired by Avista’s Energy Pathways Academy, a four-week program launched last year that provides facility tours, hands-on activities and job shadowing for high school students.
Avista’s program was intended to align with the state’s Career Connect Washington initiative announced by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2017 to connect 100,000 students with learning opportunities for high-demand, high-wage jobs over five years.
Larson said once he heard about Avista’s Energy Pathways Academy, he discussed the possibility of a production and manufacturing academy with Meg Lindsay, GSI’s director of education and talent.
It took about eight to 10 months to obtain funding and forge partnerships with other area manufacturers to launch the academy, Larson said.
Lindsay said Wagstaff’s academy fits in with GSI’s goal to develop a skilled workforce in the region.
“It’s providing a summer job, hands-on learning and a (CTE) credit. For businesses, it’s really a deeper dive into what they do,” she said. “We really appreciate the leadership of companies like Wagstaff and Avista in connection and collaboration with the Spokane Workforce Council and GSI to really further these opportunities for all students.”
Spokane Workforce Council has an academy that gives young adults an opportunity to learn about careers in skilled trades through safety instruction, industry tours and speakers.
Wagstaff has also partnered with the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce, Avista and Altek to create a scholarship for students enrolled in the machinist and computer numeric control technology program at Spokane Community College.
Larson said the response from students about Wagstaff’s production and manufacturing academy has been positive and they seem to be engaging in the curriculum.
“These are smart kids. Just in this week alone, they have come together and have jelled very nicely, and we’ve seen them go from individuals to teams in a week,” he said. “We’re excited to see what they are going to become over the next three additional weeks.”
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