by LAURA HAYES
When some students graduate from Winona Senior High School (WSHS) in the spring, they may be looking forward to a summer of fun or starting college in the fall. However, next school year Winona Area Public Schools and the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce are launching a new program designed to prepare students to enter and thrive in the workplace.
The initiative, entitled “REACH,” is expected to kick off in fall 2017 at WSHS and the Winona Area Learning Center. According to Chamber President Della Schmidt, the two-year program is open to incoming high school juniors and will cap out at 30 participants in a grade. “Our goal is that on the day that they graduate from high school that they will either know where to go to work on Monday morning or where they will be pursuing higher education,” Schmidt said.
How will REACH work? Currently, applications are open and WSHS Principal Mark Anderson hopes that interviews will start within the next week. He explained that REACH is designed to help the students understand what manufacturing careers are available locally. Upon acceptance, students will take a number of courses. One course is called work skills, which Anderson said will help develop “soft” professional skills such as how to shake hands, look people in the eye, start a conversation, write a resume or cover letter, and interview well. Students will also take a blueprint drafting course where they will learn how to read and develop blueprints and a computer-aided architectural design and 3D printing course, which will render their blueprints into 3D objects.
Anderson said that REACH is targeted at students that are likely to stay in Winona upon graduation, students who enjoy business or industrial technology courses, students who like using their hands and making products, and students interested in pursuing a career in engineering. Not all students are going to attend a four-year college or university, Schmidt said.
The REACH initiative is part of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s “Business-Education Networks” Initiative — a program designed to address some of the issues that employers are currently facing and connect employers to high school and college students. In 2015, the Minnesota Chamber announced that the program’s pilot project would be in Winona. Schmidt said that while some of the Chamber's other initiatives, such as the career expo or “CEO in the Classroom,” have a broader focus, the REACH program, she said, is a chance to drill down and work with a specific group of students and track their progress.
In the past, Schmidt has said that Winona and Southeast Minnesota in general have a shortage of skilled workers. Vice President of Strategic Accounts at Benchmark Electronics Corey Hancock and Recruiting Manager for Manufacturing at Fastenal Scott Rodeghier said that they too have felt the strain of the workforce shortage. “For the past 20 years, we’ve pushed that a four-year education as the only way to go [for students] and technical colleges was an alternative,” Rodeghier said.
He added that some of the skills needed to work in manufacturing weren’t being taught in schools. At some point the lack of workers is going to affect our businesses and ability to find workers, Rodeghier said. He explained that Fastenal trained approximately 90 percent of its machinists from the ground-up. “We would be better if they were coming straight from the trade school,” he said.
Some companies around town, such as Fastenal, are willing to pay to help students get the necessary training at a technical college. Fastenal offers a sponsorship program where it fully reimburses students for tuition and books if they show up for school and graduate with at least a B average.
“You can’t make a living on fast-food jobs. You need to learn a trade or a craft,” he said.
As a result, Fastenal and Benchmark Electronics are two of the manufacturing companies that will be involved in the REACH program in some capacity. Schmidt said that they were looking for companies interested in being a job site for students and staff to come into the classrooms, offer tours, or help provide equipment or products for the students to work on or try out.
Being one of the larger manufacturers in town, it made sense for Benchmark to get involved, Hancock said. During the program, students will have an opportunity to walk through local manufacturing companies, such as Benchmark Electronics, and get a taste for what a career in this industry would be like. Upon completion of the REACH program and graduation, Hancock said that students will get a better understanding of what jobs are open for them — machine operators, product assemblers, or repair operators, for example. More positions open up with further education, he added.
“I think the benefits for the students, more traditionally, it’s all about the math and reading, but it doesn’t give them a true perspective of what a career looks like after school. So they don’t get a chance to see what goes on in the business or what does a job in a particular industry look like,” Hancock said.
In the summer between junior and senior years, Schmidt hopes to set up a paid internship for REACH students where they can work in machine shops at Minnesota State College Southeast Technical. Additionally, students will earn college credits by participating. While the first year of REACH is focused on manufacturing industries in Winona, Schmidt believes that the program could expand to include other markets in the future. “In the end, it’s always about our students and how can we meet what needs they have,” Anderson said.