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Manufacturing a New Image

CVTC student Kate McLean from Eau Claire works at a break press machine at the Manufacturing Education Center Tuesday. At left is Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and at right is CVTC President Bruce Barker, with a group of high school students from Eleva-Strum and Baldwin-Woodville looking on. A tour of the facility was part of an October Manufacturing Month event.

Baldwin-Woodville High School student McKenzie Kohls asked Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch and a panel of manufacturing experts for some reassurance about the field.

“My grandfather was a welder who came home looking like a coal miner every day,” Kohls said. “How has manufacturing changed?

It was a good time to ask. Dispelling the myths of manufacturing was the theme of panel discussion during a Women in Manufacturing event held at Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire Tuesday to mark October as national Manufacturing Month. The event, sponsored by Wisconsin Gold Collar Careers Manufacturing Works Group, included a tour of CVTC’s Manufacturing Education Center and a public-private speed networking session.

Students from Eleva-Strum and Baldwin-Woodville schools attended the panel discussion in person, and students in Bloomer, Cumberland, Gilmanton, Pepin, Shell Lake, Turtle Lake, Shell Lake and Webster schools followed via video conferencing.

In answering Kohls’ question, Mary Isbister, president of GenMet, a metal fabricator in Mequon, Wis., dispelled the notion that welding was a dirty job in modern manufacturing.

“You can’t have smoke and dust and dirt in places that have advanced manufacturing equipment,” Isbister said.  “The equipment that we use, and the processes that we use, have advanced light years. It doesn’t look like it used to.”

Both manufacturing professionals and educators have been working for years to change the image of the sector.

“We still have people who view manufacturing as a dirty place, with things lying all over,” said Craig Simingson, superintendent of the Eleva-Strum School District, which received much praise at the event for having one of the best manufacturing education programs in the state. “But these are professional places where you’re not going to wear your Metallica t-shirt to work every day.”

Dawn Tabat, COO of Generac Power Systems, a Wisconsin home generator manufacturer with facilities in Whitewater, Waukesha and Eagle, acknowledged there was some truth to manufacturing’s poor image in years past.

“There were a lot of people making good money in manufacturing for what were pretty low-skilled jobs,” Tabat said. “But those unskilled jobs are gone. U.S. manufacturing got smart. These are jobs that are going to require a lot of special skills. There’s a whole new world in manufacturing.”

“These are ‘smart jobs,’” said Kleefisch. “We need your brains. We need your bright ideas in manufacturing.”

“I always use the term ‘advanced manufacturing.’ We won’t hire you unless you go to school after high school,” said Dan Conroy, vice president of human resources at Nexen, a manufacturer of power transmission and other products with a plant in Webster, Wis.

Conroy said about 12 percent of jobs in his company require only a high school education, but those positions are never open. Another 70 percent require a technical college education, and 18 percent require a university degree. Kleefisch added that over the next decade, between 54 and 72 percent of jobs will require more than a high school education, but less than a university degree.

Some of the students present asked questions about job opportunities available and the courses they should be taking to prepare themselves for the jobs available. The panelists explained that there are a wide variety of careers available, from operation of sophisticated equipment, to the design and maintenance of that equipment, improvement of manufacturing processes, and many levels of support positions.

“You can do almost anything within manufacturing, but you have to understand how manufacturing works. Today’s manufacturing operates very complex equipment,” Isbister said. She urged students to have an understanding of mathematics and how it is applied, but a broad education is valuable. “There probably aren’t too many classes that wouldn’t be advantageous to you.”

Women were particularly encouraged to explore careers in what is still a heavily male-dominated field. Tabat shared her story of a 42-year rise from production and secretarial work at Generac Power Systems to human resources and eventually chief operating officer.

“I started out with a small company and the company grew bigger and bigger, and I grew with it,” Tabat said. She added only six percent of her type of position is held by women nationally.

Isbister noted that a woman who started in customer service at GenMet eight years ago, “basically runs the place when I’m not there.”

“There are no other places that have a greater opportunity for women to compete on a level playing field than manufacturing,” Tabat said.

“You can use a laser cutter to break the glass ceiling,” Kleefisch said.

Gold Collar Careers are high tech manufacturing jobs that are pushing the limits of technology by demanding bright individuals who understand and embrace the latest machining, electronic, computer, and other technologies; and creative thinkers with applied/hands-on abilities to solve problems and get things done.