Partnering for Success

Part 1 (Note: This article is the first of a two-part series. Part 2 will be featured in our February 2016 newsletter.)

Long before worker shortage and the skills gap became part of daily conversation, the leadership at Alexandria Industries anticipated these issues would become significant.

They recognized that approximately a third of our workforce – made-up of baby-boomers – would all likely retire around the same time. They also realized the growing trend of younger generations who were moving away from STEM careers, which meant our pool of good candidates with technology and engineering skills, would dwindle to a trickle.

Facing a perfect storm, they collaborated with local business and education leaders to find innovative ways to manage the looming worker shortage by partnering with our regional education facilities.

A New Way to Learn
We began efforts to change the way students learn by partnering with like-minded businesses, community leaders and our local high school to raise money through private donations – to the tune of $7 million. This was even before the school district approached taxpayers with a new levy to raise money for a new high school. The levy passed because of the community’s commitment to education and the many reasons it is critical to our longevity.

In 2014, Alexandria Area High School (AAHS) opened its doors to an entirely new way of teaching students. Called the “Googleplex of Schools” by a nationally recognized magazine, AAHS uses a small learning community model to deliver applicable curriculum to students. Every student enrolls in one of the school’s three academies that use career pathways to provide students with a plan to connect high school coursework with career opportunities after graduation.

Local manufacturing businesses worked with the high school’s administrators and educators to design the Engineering, Manufacturing Technologies and Natural Resources Academy. We rolled up our sleeves and helped develop curriculum and class projects. This was one way we could help students understand that they may not need a four-year college degree to have an exciting career building things that people use everyday.

We also worked with the school to create its Industrial Technology Lab – a showcase with glass walls located front and center, next to the main commons area that houses a donated a CNC machine, conveyor system and pick-and-place robot. We also raised money and sought additional equipment donations from local manufacturers for the lab. It was such as success that the school had leftover funds and purchased a virtual welder to teach students to weld using software technology in an innovative virtual reality world.

To create relevance between what students learn in class and how it relates to the real world, it was critical to change the way they learn. With a hands-on, applied learning model, teachers use computer-aided design software (CAD) to teach geometry. Students learn statistics and the concept of variation by measuring parts using a computer-controlled measuring machine. In the Physics in Manufacturing course, for example, the students learn physics by building a radio-controlled car. Students are able to take field trips to various businesses to learn first-hand what it is like to work in manufacturing.

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The curriculum at AAHS provides students with a non-traditional approach to meet their physics/chemistry science requirements through a “Physics in Manufacturing” class. Students get hands-on experience learning from several manufacturing experts located in Alexandria and the surrounding communities.

We partnered with the educators to design education for the students’ future careers. Not just for the sake of education. In the traditional delivery of high school curriculum, students may not understand how they will use the courses they take. We strongly believe they will be more motivated if they can see how the things they are learning apply to future careers.

Experiential Learning
Because of commitment to our community and efforts to grow the pool of Alexandria’s skilled workforce, we have become so much more passionate about encouraging high school students to consider a career in manufacturing.

The team at Alexandria Industries actively support the way we educate our students by serving on numerous academic and advisory boards and committees. We spend time in the classroom, teaching students what they really need to know to work in manufacturing so they have an honest understanding of what they can expect in these types of careers.

The Alexandria, Minn., community is successful because of our people and our commitment to success. We came together to help manage the worker shortage and skills gap problem through partnerships among the high school, the college, the community and our businesses.

We are excited to see how this new model will affect our graduating high school students. From the feedback we have heard, they understand the opportunities that lie ahead if they do select careers in the manufacturing. We could not do this by ourselves, and we are grateful for the partnerships that have been formed, and will continue many years to come.

Stay tuned for our February 2016 newsletter, where we will share how we support our local community college, develop in-house training programs and plan for our future movers, shakers and leaders.