Waconia High School teachers Peter Brown and Dave Aeling have spent the last week hard at work cramming in some last-minute learning before school starts in September.
The two industrial tech and engineering teachers cut through sheets of wood with panel saws on Tuesday at ELKAY — Medallion Cabinetry.
They are participating in a program in partnership with the Waconia Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce’s Business Education Network.
The program gives educators the chance to take part in an industry immersion experience in the hopes of preparing students for the needs of the workforce.
“We need to prepare students for today, tomorrow and their future,” Aeling said.
Brown and Aeling are spending two weeks learning and working in two manufacturing companies based in Waconia: ELKAY and Applied Vacuum Technology Inc. At the end on Sept. 1, the teachers will receive a certificate for a professional development credit and a salary.
The program was launched by Chamber of Commerce’s education network two years ago in Winona with the help of grants. It’s now expanded to Brainerd and Waconia. The effort grew out of a concern from member chambers looking to address the workforce shortage, said Stacey Stout, director of education and workforce development policy for the chamber.
“The purpose is that they have a better understanding of the kinds of jobs they are preparing students for,” Stout said.
The initiative started as a way to strengthen ties between schools and local businesses while offering teachers a chance to get firsthand experience in the local workforce.
“Throughout the years, it has been tougher and tougher to get young people involved in manufacturing,” Mark Storms, operations manager for ELKAY in Waconia, said. “We started talking about how do we get ... local education involved in trying to help manufacturing.”
Aeling and Brown have seen an increased interest from students. They say the push is getting them to see manufacturing as an option after graduation.
ELKAY has about 500 employees, making it one of the largest employers in Waconia. That’s down from more than 600 employees before the recession forced the company to downsize. After the recession, ELKAY needed more employees.
“When everybody started getting busy again then all the manufacturing sites were looking for help,” Storms said.
Storms said the industry’s move toward automation is helping to recruit students and change the perception of the manufacturing industry. ELKAY donated automated woodworking equipment to the district’s new high school campus.
“There is more out there than assembly work when you are talking about manufacturing,’ Storms said.
Before the training, Aeling had worked to develop a relationship with ELKAY. He has spent 30 years teaching industrial tech, and before that he was an ELKAY employee. Aeling said he wants his students to know that they don’t need to follow the typical track to a four-year degree.
“I believe that this program is going to help maybe shift some mind-sets,” he said.
Aeling and Brown spent the week of Aug. 21 learning about the safety policies, woodworking and learning about ELKAY products. Brown said he found that the school and the plant used the same safety standards.
“It was great to see that we are right here with industry standards,” Brown said.
On Monday, Aeling and Brown will start the second half of their experience at Applied Vacuum Technology Inc., where they will take on metalwork and welding. Operations Manager Don Moore said he looks forward to seeing what will come out of the partnership.
“We have got open positions right at this time,” he said.