Edgerton students learn local trades, get paid doing it
It was 7:45 a.m. on a Thursday, and high school junior Dylan Counter already had been at work nearly two hours at Componex in Edgerton.
Counter watched as a precision lathe spun a shiny aluminum shaft at 4,000 rpm, its cutting tool shaving fractions of an inch from the shaft. He reached in and pulled free a curlicue of metal shavings that glinted like silver Christmas tinsel.
Across the plant floor, sophomore Kaleb Kruckenberg eyed a computer monitor as he tapped a metal balancing rod into the end of a finished aluminum shaft.
This was work but also school for Counter and Kruckenberg. They are guinea pigs—picks of the guinea pig litter, actually—for "Pipeline to Employment," a new public-private work-study program between the Edgerton School District and several area businesses.Componex, a small Edgerton company that manufactures precision aluminum rollers for printing, laminating and product packaging, chose Counter and Kruckenberg from a pool of five Edgerton High School students who applied eight weeks ago for a new, paid internship and apprenticeship program at the plant.
The program is the first of a host of potential planned partnerships, and it's being trumpeted as a big win for the school district and local manufacturers.
District officials say it gives students a jump on learning real-life job skills. Business owners say the program grooms students for potential future careers in the local workforce at a time when industries nationally are battling the "skills gap"—a critical shortage of workers with the talents needed for precision work in manufacturing and technology fields.
"In our industry, there's just a great difficulty in getting people with CNC (computer numerical control) and other machining skills proficiency," Componex owner Cal Couillard said. "We're hiring people who are 25 years old who walk in, and they really don't have the skills. We have to start training them from scratch."
He said Edgerton's new school program could help close the skills gap by creating a solid local labor pool that starts with students who've mastered manufacturing skills early in life.
"Our hope is instead of hiring people off the street with very little skills, we can build workers from the ground up and have people from this town who are 22 years old with a degree in machining and real skills."
Couillard compared the idea to school sports.
"If you see a high school program that's got a really good team—soccer or whatever—you'll notice that those programs have really solid feeder programs at the grade-school level," Couillard said.
Just the beginning
A host of other local businesses are in talks about taking Edgerton High School students for internships and training programs, Principal Mark Coombs said.
Among them, he said, are The Edgerton Reporter, the city's local weekly paper; the city of Edgerton; and a few local veterinary clinics.
Coombs said another student last week started an art and graphic design internship at Integrity Metal Fabrication, an Edgerton welding shop that does projects from trailers to hot rods. He said another student is doing an apprenticeship at a Janesville engine shop.
The district is in talks with Edgerton Gear over a potential manufacturing partnership. The local company, which builds specialty gears, is interviewing students for an internship, Coombs said.
United Alloy in Janesville is considering a high school student internship program starting in December, Coombs added.
Students interested in the United Alloy internship would have to pass a stringent welding test. For some, that could mean extra class time—even summer coursework.
"If they have to go to summer school to make sure that they have the necessary skills and techniques to get employed at these places, we want to make sure we do that," Coombs said. "The emphasis here is let's find a way to get these kids into the fields that they want to get into."
In large part, the new program's playbook is being written as the school district goes, Coombs said. He said the district's goal is to let local businesses make their needs clear, and the district will work to tailor courses and class units to make students more employable.
Coombs said part of the district's recently passed technology referendum could cover specialized equipment in the tech ed department and other curriculum areas that fit with local business needs.
The district hopes the program grows and expands to a diverse spectrum of partnerships. Coombs said he's hesitant to put a ceiling on how many businesses or students could be served.
"We want to continue to expand on it and make it as big as we can. I'd hate to put a number on it," he said.
The students at Componex aren't just practicing. The tasks are for real.
All of Counter's and Kruckenberg's work at Componex is encoded with their employee ID numbers in the plant's invoicing system. Each roller they finish gets packed into a box and shipped to companies that need products balanced to within one one-thousandth of an inch, Couillard said.
"It was a little intimidating at first, but you get beyond it," Kruckenberg said.
Coombs said the district wants to be "protective" of students and the businesses involved by making sure students are capable and well matched.
It's double-duty, though, and that can be a challenge for students such as Counter and Kruckenberg. Their schooldays start at 6 a.m. at Componex, and they head to the school for classes from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Then there's after-school activities and homework.
"At least football's done," Counter said.
Coombs said the district will work to be flexible with students in "Pipeline to Employment," but they must perform well.
"We've told the businesses we don't want the students treated any differently than other employees," Coombs said. "If for some reason it doesn't work out, they've obviously got a place back at school. We'll get them back into classes to improve skills or maybe re-focus on something else."
Jaye Lauer, human resources director at Componex, said the internships will be valuable whether or not they blossom into full-time careers for students.
"At that age, how do you really know what you want to do? You've got to start carving out a chunk of real estate for yourself early. Maybe something like this can work for you. That's what we hope anyway," she said.
Experience with a paycheck
Short term, the internships are a plus for Counter and Kruckenberg, who said Componex pays them $7.25 an hour, the minimum wage.
For Counter, it beats classroom learning.
"I can't just sit. I like to work with my hands. That's the main thing," he said.
Two months into the internship, Counter already has learned five of the eight major processes the company uses to manufacture custom rollers, plant manager Wade Woods said.
Woods said the internships have involved weeks of classroom-style training. Meanwhile, plant workers are teaching the two students to use a variety of lathes, cutting tools and even precision computer numerical control systems designed to shave thousands of an inch from rollers.
Counter and Kruckenberg spend part of their 15 hours a week at the plant finding ways to increase plant productivity and cut costs. For instance, on some mornings, the two sort through leftover cut aluminum shafts to find castoffs that can be used for other jobs.
"That cuts on waste. It's a real big benefit," Woods said.
If the fledgling internships go well, the students will have chances to work at Componex over the summer and continue their internships next year, Woods said.
He said Componex is considering a pilot program to pay some or all costs for students like Counter and Kruckenberg to attend technical college.
It has been so far, so good for Counter and Kruckenberg.
"They're doing great," said Allen Spinhirne, a worker at Componex who was supervising Counter on a lathe.
Spinhirne, who has worked at Componex for a year, said employees quickly got used to working with the two students. He said they just seem like eager coworkers.
"They're catching on pretty well, and they seem really into the work. So that's nice," he said.
Kruckenberg finished tapping a weighted balance rod into a finished roller and looked up at a glowing computer screen readout. It showed that he had finally balanced the weight on the roller. It had been an unusually tricky one; he had to reset the computer program twice.
Kruckenberg peeled off his safety glasses and smiled ear to ear.
"That feels great," he said.
It was 9 a.m., and he was done with another day at the plant. Time to head to school.