Spokane Journal of Business

Production and Manufacturing Academy returns

More students experience work in industry in Spokane

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Though COVID-19 derailed the second Production & Manufacturing Academy class in 2020, it didn’t dampen the spirits of a group of high school juniors and seniors who just graduated in the 2021 class.

Eighteen students, eight of whom are female, completed the academy that ran from July 12 through July 30, says Wade Larson, the chief human resources officer at Spokane-based aluminum castings equipment manufacturer Wagstaff Inc.

“We were set for last year up until the day before, and then that’s when the governor shut everything down,” Larson says. “In hindsight, it was probably good that we didn’t do it.”

The academy was established in 2019 through a collaboration by Wagstaff, East Valley High School, Greater Spokane Incorporated, and the Spokane Workforce Council, among others.

The goal of the intensive training program is for students – particularly girls – across Spokane and Kootenai counties to gain first-hand experience in the manufacturing and production industries.

“Our focus is to attract kids when they’re in that space wondering, ‘Is this something that I want to do?’’’ Larson says. “The goal of the academy is to capture that group and give them hands-on experience in engineering, production, even on the business side.”

Another goal of the academy, which receives financial support from 18 sponsors ranging from businesses to nonprofits, in addition to private donors, is to help build a regional work pool for the distribution and manufacturing sector, he says.

Larson says Wagstaff recently hired a man from the academy’s class of 2019 to work as an entry-level production assembler. The company also is currently in the process of interviewing another 2019 academy class graduate.

The academy’s organizers and supporters, including the Greater Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce, also were able to present $4,500 college scholarship awards each to three students who completed the 2019 academy, he says.

This year, two students each received $4,500 in scholarship money, while three more each received $2,000, he says.

During the three-week cohort, Larson says students are grouped into four different “departments” and are told they work for the same employer.

Student employees are tasked with making birdhouses, checker and chess boards, cutting boards, and full-size planter boxes, he says.

“We want to give them the whole experience of production and manufacturing from concepts to design, planning, creation... quality,” Larson says. “And they have to sell their products.”

By the end of the first week, the students relocated to West Valley High School to begin making their prototypes, he says.

Along the way, however, students are presented with change orders.

“About the time they get comfortable, then we ask each department to make five more products,” he says.

At the conclusion, students made 52 birdhouses, 35 checker and chess boards, 44 cutting boards, 18 planter boxes, and generated $5,000 in sales, he says.

The materials used to build the products are paid for by donations from sponsors, and the proceeds of the sales go to East Valley High School, Larson says.

“EVHS gives us the shop teacher, admin to help set up busing for the field trips, and the overhead,” Larson says. “Anything leftover goes to the purchase of shop equipment.”

 Larson admits he didn’t realize academy interest from students, and the manufacturing industry, would evolve as quickly as it has.

The first year of the academy drew 45 applications. The following year the  applicant pool exploded, garnering 175 applications from students competing for 20 available slots. Ultimately, the 2020 class was derailed by the pandemic.

“This year we had just close to 60 (applications), and we’re still in the pandemic,” Larson says.

Applications for the 2022 academy cohort will be available to students for completion starting early next year, he says.

Larson says it’s been easy to secure sponsors.

Top-level Inland Northwest manufacturing executives, including MacKay Manufacturing’s Katie MacKay, Altek Inc.’s Mike Marzetta, and Pearson Packaging Systems’ Mike Senske are among several local business leaders who have proven to be staunch supporters of the academy, he says.

Larson says he was first approached by Meg Lindsay, who was then the director of education and workforce at Greater Spokane Inc., about the idea of the manufacturing academy. Lindsay now is director of education programs with nonprofit Innovia Foundation.

“From our end, we all share the same employees,” Larson says of local manufacturing companies.

“And we all share the same problems in that we don’t have anybody coming up,” he says of the future manufacturing labor pool.

Larson claims the academy has drawn statewide attention from school districts and manufacturing companies, which in turn has spurred more conversations about how the industry can more effectively encourage today’s youth to explore careers in manufacturing.

 “It goes beyond the 20 kids at the academy,” Larson says. “It’s not about Wagstaff, it’s about how do we impact the community.”

Kevin Blocker
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