WYOMING, Mich. (WOOD) — Austin Bonter is a machine build apprentice with specialty manufacturer AutoMatrix in Wyoming. It’s his job to transfer designs from paper to a computer and make a workable machine.
After graduating from Coopersville High School a few years ago, Bonter decided the four-year college route wasn’t for him.
“I guess I consider myself more of a go-getter. Do stuff, not sit around in a class all day,” he said.
His philosophy has paid off. Along with his weekly paycheck, the company pays for his community college credits.
Bonter is an example of the kind of person a new program called Launch U is aimed at.
Kent Intermediate School District, Grand Rapids Community College and several local manufacturers are partnering on the program to get high school students interested in an industry that many declared dead on arrival just a few years ago.
“We have heard loud and clear from our business community that we need to ramp up our efforts in K-12 to prepare our future workforce,” Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Caniff said.
Launch U recruits high school 10th-graders with an aptitude for skilled trades and enrolls them tuition-free in GRCC programs. After a 13th year of high school, students will have an associate’s degree and industry certificates.
It’s similar to a program recently launched in Ottawa County, but involves more manufacturers.
Launch U qualifies students in the skilled trade of their choice.
Incoming GRCC President Bill Pink compared the program to athletes signing college commitments.
“We ought to have a signing party for them as well. We ought to have tables and everything to celebrate the fact that they’re going to have a tuition-free education that’s going to make a difference in the world,” Pink said.
While providing careers for students, the program also helps address a critical problems in advanced manufacturing: a lack of skilled workers.
“We have job opportunities, we’ve got open jobs that have gone unfilled going on months. In some cases over nine months or a year,” said Erin Hoffmann, CEO of AutoMatrix parent company ArtiFlex.
That shortage could be bad for business. Hoffmann said potential customers are asking about the workforce.
“What are you doing here to develop the talent needed for these future projects?” he said they ask.
The answers about how manufacturers got into this predicament can be traced back to the great recession, which hit manufacturing hard.
“People were hearing from grandpa or dad, ‘Don’t get into manufacturing. It’s a dead-end career. Look at that plant that’s closing down,'” Hoffmann said.
And government policies like the Michigan Merit Curriculum put added emphasis on a four-year degrees.
“But what got left on the wayside a little bit was these types of opportunities that are terrific opportunities for kids,” Caniff said.
These days, skilled trades are short on applicants, but not on opportunity.
“Many of these students who come out will end up making well over $100,000 a year and have a huge impact on the future of how we design and build products,” Hoffmann said.