By Mike Marsee
Russell Allen is more interested in building a better workforce tomorrow than getting a few extra hands today.
Allen, the safety director at a Winchester factory, came to Clark County Area Technology Center Principal Mike Kindred with a plan to help meet that goal – one that Kindred couldn’t pass up.
Allen’s employer, bedding manufacturer Leggett & Platt, and Kindred’s school have teamed up to create a program in which students will get a good look at a career in manufacturing by working at the company’s Winchester facility.
The result of their collaboration is just getting off the ground, but Kindred said he can’t wait to see what it becomes.
“This has been a fascinating start to something that I think will be a nice initiative,” Kindred said. “I’m hoping it’ll be a model for some other industries to jump on board.”
Kindred and the faculty at Clark County ATC selected a group of about 20 students for a presentation on the program, and those who were interested signed up to apply for positions at Leggett & Platt. The students worked with a representative of the local office of the Kentucky Career Center to develop a résumé, and human resources manager Stephen Day interviewed eight of them.
“I wanted to see what level of commitment they had, I wanted them to know what they’re getting into, what to expect in manufacturing and how it ties into what they want to do in the future,” Day said.
Several students were hired to work a few hours a week at the factory – which produces inner springs for mattresses – in an initiative that is not tied to any class or existing program at the school. This is the school’s first extracurricular industry partnership.
“It’s a true partnership between us and Leggett & Platt. It’s not just about them getting workers; it’s about an educational process,” Kindred said.
The students will see how it is possible to make a living in manufacturing and learn whether it is for them.
“Not all of us go to college,” said Allen, the safety director at Leggett & Platt’s Winchester facility. “And if they decide that they’re not going to go to college, we want them to see that they can still make a career in manufacturing.”
Kindred said students need to be exposed to jobs and careers beyond those that high-schoolers typically fill.
“There’s still a disconnect between education and industry,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of good kids who want to work, and unless you’re 18, fast food is the only option for most of them. We’ve got to change our way of thinking to where these kids can go into a real work environment and see what it’s like. Then they’ll start to understand why math skills are important, why soft skills are important, why attendance is important.”
David Horseman, director of the Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE) Division of Technical Schools and Federal Programs, said this program helps students bridge a gap.
“As an office, we’re trying to increase the number of workplace learning experiences, because that’s where kids connect the dots between the skills that they’re taught and what industry wants,” Horseman said. “Hearing about what employers are looking for in the classroom is one thing, but when somebody’s paying you and they talk about those things, it sounds different coming from their mouth.”
Kindred acknowledged that a partnership like this one might not be possible everywhere – some industries simply can’t or won’t take workers under 18 due to liability issues – but he is convinced that this program can be duplicated.
“Your biggest issue is getting lucky like we did and finding a partner like Leggett & Platt,” he said. “We’ve had companies that have told us, ‘Unless they’re 18, there’s nothing we can do.’”
Horseman said small employers can’t afford to pay for workers’ compensation insurance for minors, but he said there are options. KDE’s Tech Ready Apprentices for Careers in Kentucky (TRACK) youth pre-apprenticeship program offers training for students at no cost to employers beyond the students’ wages. Small employers also can take on young employees and the associated costs through temp agency Adecco in the Youth Employment Solutions (YES!) program.
Horseman said those programs and others such as the one at Clark County ATC are invaluable for students.
“It’s a great bridge and a great training tool. You just can’t beat that authentic experience,” he said.
Kindred said he thinks it’s important to find just the right industry for a program such as the one in Clark County.
“You’ve got to pick the plant carefully and pick the kids carefully,” he said. “It’s finding the right partner, and they’re out there. It’s just a matter of knocking on the right door.”
Kindred serves on the Clark County industrial board, and he said he has talked to representatives from other industries in Winchester that are monitoring what happens with the students at Leggett & Platt.
“I told our students, ‘We want you to be successful, because if this is a flop they’re not coming back,’” he said. “The students are excited about it, and the ones that make the cut are going to feel pretty good about themselves.”
The company agreed to hire seniors who would work 20 hours per week in quality control and sophomores and juniors who would work eight hours per week in maintenance and janitorial jobs.
“We’re very limited on what these kids can do here, but these are things that they can take from here and put on a résumé,” Allen said.
Students must maintain a C average and a good attendance record, stay drug free and avoid any legal problems to maintain their employment.
“Their education is paramount,” Allen said.
They will get raises and evaluations, and the company has the option to bring in seniors to work on special projects on weekends or to work during the summer after they graduate.
“We’re trying to mirror real life as much as we possibly can,” Allen said. “This is not about us getting cheap labor; that’s not what we’re trying to do here. If they don’t go to college, we’d like them to consider us as a long-term employer.”
Kindred said Leggett & Platt and the other industries in Winchester face the same issues schools face when it comes to finding good workers – issues with drugs, a lack of work ethic and poor attendance – and he said they stand to benefit from this program too.
“We’ve got a pretty good industry base here in Winchester, and they need good, home-grown workers,” he said.
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