Blenker Companies, Inc. Inspires Next Generation of Craft Professionals

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Every October, thousands of middle school students venture in buses across Wisconsin to congregate for the Heavy Metal Tour. The event doesn’t promise head-banging guitar solos, base-pumping lyrics or even crowd surfing, but instead, encourages its participants to be rock stars in the manufacturing and construction trades.

The event’s resounding theme is to encourage these 1,600 eighth-grade students to find their forte in careers within the manufacturing facilities that they tour.

“Students are not always familiar with manufacturing jobs in eighth grade,” Jackie Esselman, high school outreach coordinator for Mid-State Technical College said. “They see some of the positions as dark, dirty and not enjoyable.”

According to Esselman, the tour highlights the innovative thinking and the latest technology that exists at these facilities and it opens students’ eyes to all possibilities a manufacturing career can take them, including how viable and well-paying these careers can be for them.

“It is important [to] show students options in manufacturing: one job in manufacturing supports four other jobs in our regional economy,” Esselman said. “If we don’t have enough labor force [and] participation in manufacturing: our tax base and economic impact will be greatly affected.”

As early as 2020, the U.S. economy will be short 18 million skilled trade workers. Marathon and Portage counties alone had over 8,000 unfilled openings in manufacturing.

The Heavy Metal Tour intends to address the current labor shortage problem and according to Esselman, the initiative is already making a difference.

“I believe that this event may have had some influence in this growth,” Esselman said. “The event is a new experience for them and it’s amazing to see how excited and engaged these students get when on the employer tours.”

The employer tours are a result of collaboration between regional chambers, technical colleges, the North Central Wisconsin Workforce Development Board (NCWWDB) and the Central Wisconsin Metal Manufacturers Alliance (CWIMMA).

The NCWWDB is the creator of the CWIMMA and leads CWIMMA with running the their day-to-day operations.

Due to the labor shortage that is expected, the NCWWDB’s primary motivation is to highlight career opportunities in manufacturing for regional K-12 youth.

“I believe that it is imperative to identify students with interest in ‘hands on careers’ as early as possible in the K-12,” Derek Heikkinen, business services director for the NCWWDB said.

According to Heikkinen, careers in construction in the region are expected to grow through 2026 at double the national average and this could greatly diversify and grow our regional economy so there is a need for more students to go into the trades.

Eighth grade is an opportune time for students to start learning about careers in the trades because they’re able to see what a potential career is like before scheduling their high school classes.

“The hope is that we attract more students to trade based electives and regional technical colleges, where the majority of the future jobs will be,” Heikkinen said.

Heikkinen said the tour plans to attract even more students next year: when it goes national.

“We need more skilled trade workers and I believe this is a great first step,” Heikkinen said. “The more we can tie workforce programs, businesses and education together, the better we will be.”

Approximately 33 local manufacturers are participating in the regional initiative this year, which includes Blenker Companies, Inc.

This year marks the third year that they have been involved with the tour.

“Team building helps to strengthen our group and leads to a more successful workplace,” Arndt. “Last year, teams at Blenker Companies, Inc. worked together, with limited supplies, to erect different structures (picnic tables, chairs, etc.) and it was really neat to see everyone come together and all the creativity that emerged.”

“One of our recruitment strategies is to get young people excited about skilled trades,” Nora Boomer, human resources director at Blenker Companies, Inc. said. “The Heavy Metal Tour allows us to meet with students and talk about our company. We are unique in that we are in both the manufacturing and construction industries, so we are able to offer many different career opportunities.”

Students who toured the production facility at Blenker Companies, Inc. got to learn about the process from beginning to the end: from sale, to estimate, to structural design and then onto the manufacturing floor and off to the job site.

Boomer said the students’ most common response was how they couldn’t believe how quickly Blenker Companies, Inc. could build a residential or commercial project on the manufacturing floor.

The Heavy Metal Tour will prove to be instrumental for students to learn about educational opportunities and for manufacturers to build a pipeline for future workers.

“We are building relationships now, so we stay connected with students through their elementary, high school and college years,” Boomer said. “So someday, they decide to work for Blenker Companies, Inc.”