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Spokane Valley Companies Teach Students About Manufacturing

Courtesy of Spokane Valley Career and Technical Education

Many employers in the U.S. are having trouble finding qualified workers as the country emerges from the pandemic. Spokane Valley manufacturing interests have decided one of the best ways to combat that is by developing their own workforce.

On Monday, several companies welcomed 20 high school students for the first day of a Production and Manufacturing Academy. Wade Larson is the HR director at Wagstaff, Inc. in Spokane Valley. His company is one of the academy’s organizers, along with Greater Spokane, the East Valley School District and Spokane Workforce Council.

“A little over two years ago, I got together with the Manufacturing Consortium and we recognized the need to develop labor and we saw what the pool was looking like and we needed something more," he said. "I was invited to go see what Avista had done with their academy three years ago and I was challenged by Meg Lindsey, who was, at the time, with GSI and she said simply, ‘What do you think? Can you pull this off with manufacturing?’”

Two years ago, they did pull it off. Wagstaff and other manufacturing companies held the first-annual high school academy, a 40-hour-a-week, four-week training session in engineering and production.

“They’re going to design their product. They’re going to figure out how to manufacture 25, 35, even 50 pro ducts over the course of the academy. They have to connect with customers. They have to sell all these products," Larson said. "We put them, start to finish, in a manufacturing environment where they have to work as teams and then as a company as a whole to sell multiple products in somewhat of a competition scenario. They have to work through problem solving, critical thinking and production capabilities, just like we do in the real world.”

Larson says, this year, 70 students applied for 20 spots.

“We asked them four questions. What are you looking for in your career? Why would you want to come and join us at the academy? What do you hope to get from it? What would be your contribution to the team? What do you hope to gain in life?” he said.

Because of the pandemic, this year’s academy has been shortened to three weeks.

“The kids come in. They have an awareness that they’re going to have an experience but they don’t know exactly what experiences they’re going to have. They do not know what the products are. They don’t know who their team members are and they really do not have any idea what to expect," he said.

They earn a stipend and a diploma. Two years ago, three students were awarded two-year scholarships to trade education programs.

“We have spent 20 or 30 years telling kids that these are dirty jobs and bad jobs and terrible jobs," Larson said. And closing down high school vocational programs, he said.

“What we have not told these kids is that we have some incredibly good-paying jobs. They can walk out of high school now, because of dual enrollment, with their associate’s degree and starting making $45,000-50,000 a year as a certified tradesperson. They can leave with their associate’s degree at age 20, if they’ve taken a traditional route, with minimal debt and start making $50,000 without overtime. That was before overtime, with full benefits. That’s phenomenal. And within just a few years, they could making far more money than those of us who took traditional four-year college approaches," he said.

He says schools and businesses need to give students, from an early age, hands-on opportunities to learn about manufacturing and open their eyes to careers that aren’t in the public eye.

“But we also need to share the success stories so that we can educate the parents. We need to change the conversation with the career counselors. We need to change the conversation with the instructors and the parents to let them know these are great-paying jobs. College is not for everyone and we have a huge opportunity," Larson said.

His company, Wagstaff, Inc., is one of the partners of the Spokane Valley Production and Manufacturing Academy, which will take place at East Valley and West Valley High Schools over the next three weeks.