A new group of young worker bees is buzzing around Perham High School's Career Tech Center.

The school has started a manufacturing education class that's giving students the chance to learn valuable business skills while earning course credit - and cash. The name of the class, Jacket Manufacturing, is a play on the school's Yellowjacket mascot.

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In collaboration with some of the area's leading manufacturers, like Kitmasters, Lund Boats and KLN, the year-long class provides students with hands-on, real-life experiences across various aspects of production work, including finance, marketing, design, welding, machining, maintenance and more.

It's a "win-win" for the students and local manufacturers, Perham-Dent Superintendent Mitch Anderson said, as the kids develop skills that directly apply to their own career interests while local employers get a larger pool of qualified workers to pick from after graduation. Perham manufacturers have struggled with significant worker shortages in recent years, even as they actively and aggressively recruit.

"Right now, businesses are screaming for employees," said Jon Skow, instructor of the Jacket Manufacturing class. "I think a lot of the students (in the class) will end up staying around here and working for employers that they've already worked with, before they even got out of high school."

"I don't think there's a business around here that isn't hungry for workers," said Anderson. "I think the businesses are licking their chops at kids who are going to have a set of skills that will benefit them."

The kids in Jacket Manufacturing learn not only "hard" skills like machinery and welding, but also the "soft" skills that employers appreciate in their top applicants, like how to dress for an interview and look someone in the eye when shaking hands. Students who complete the class get a certificate showing they've had 10 hours of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) online training, giving them yet another 'leg up' on the competition when it comes time to find a job.

With the skills they learn in Jacket Manufacturing, Skow said, "these kids will be more hirable than those who don't have that experience."

Anderson said Jacket Manufacturing is a sign of the times. For about the past decade, there's been a transition in high school education, he said, with greater emphasis given to creating skill sets in students, especially in those who aren't interested in obtaining a four-year degree after high school.

"We're headed towards a 'pathways approach' in Perham, where kids get more exposure to a variety of electives and they choose a pathway that fits their career interests down the road," Anderson said. "That's not saying they have to pick a career at this age, but kids this age usually know if they might want to do something that Jacket Manufacturing would apply to."

"There's jobs out there waiting for these kids after they graduate," he added of the Jacket Manufacturing crew. "Some will go to a trade or tech school and then come back, others will go right into the workforce... In Jacket Manufacturing, whether you're a machine operator or a welder, those are good jobs that you can get certified in without the debt (of a four-year college degree), and you're off and running."

Building the program

This year's class is the first, so this initial crop of students is helping to build the program up - in more ways than one.

The 16 kids in the class are currently constructing a tool crib, lumber rack and other storage spaces for their shop area - features that will be used by future classes for years to come. They've already designed a Jacket Manufacturing logo, and are in the process of designing a website. Informational flyers about Jacket Manufacturing were recently created and distributed around town.

Every day, the kids brainstorm products they can mass produce for sale at the school store and local retail outlets. They're already making custom-engraved cribbage boards, for example, and plan to start making backyard fire rings with custom cut-outs.

They've had donations of materials and machinery from the school district, Kit Masters, BTD and others, and are accepting new donations all the time. The machining and welding side of Jacket Manufacturing is fully functional, and the kids are now taking orders for customizable work.

They've also been meeting almost weekly with various businesses in the area to collaborate on production projects.

Last Wednesday, for example, the class met with a representative from Lund Boats, Dan Flatau, to talk about different products Jacket Manufacturing could produce in partnership with the internationally-known, New York Mills-based boat manufacturer.

A boat-shaped beverage cooler was one idea that got tossed around: the kids could design the cooler, create a mock-up as a sample, and then, using materials provided by Lund, assemble the coolers in class. The specialty coolers would be made to look like miniature Lund boats, with the Lund logo on the side, and could be sold to consumers or donated by Lund as auction prizes for fundraisers.

If the boat cooler idea evolves beyond the initial concept phase, the planning and production process would be the same as it would be for any other Lund product, except the students would be in charge of it all, from start to finish.

The Jacket Manufacturing class is completely student-run. It operates out of the high school and is led by Skow, but students take the lead in everything. Profits made stay with the class and students, going toward new materials or equipment for the tech center or into students' pockets as a reward for their hard work. Each student has the potential to earn up to $1,500 a year through profit sharing on the work they do for the class.

The kids in Jacket Manufacturing each have their own niche, but also learn about every possible job. There are welders and machinists, maintenance supervisors and CAD specialists, as well as managers for the office, marketing and communications, production and safety, and transportation, among other roles.

Three students serve as lead instructors, at times working directly with local employers to learn how to use the machinery and other equipment in the tech center; they then share that knowledge with their peers.

There are about 20 different kinds of machines in the center right now, including a CNC (Computer Numerical Controlled) mill, CNC lathe, CNC plasma cutter, laser engraver and 3-D printer, to name a few. Most of the machines are state-of-the-art and brand new, as is the school itself, which just opened this fall.

Anderson said the timing of the school's construction boded well for the creation of the class. While other schools around the region are trying to figure out how to incorporate a class like Jacket Manufacturing into their existing facilities, Perham High School was able to design its new tech center with the specific needs of this class in mind.

"That's been really fortunate for us," he said. "I think we're ahead of the game a little bit. But I think in the next years you're going to see programs like this popping up more and more."

Anderson could think of only one similar program in Minnesota right now, at the school in Deer River. The Perham class is modeled after a program in the Eleva-Strum School District in Strum, Wisconsin, called Cardinal Manufacturing. Perham school and industry leaders made two separate visits to Cardinal Manufacturing over the past two years to research that program and bring ideas back with them.

Building life skills

The kids in Jacket Manufacturing are still getting their feet wet in this new class, but from the get-go, they've been liking it.

"It's a lot more hands-on (than other classes), and you learn a lot more of the 'soft skills' of business," said Isaac VanWatermulen, the marketing and financial manager for the class. "You're not learning out of a textbook."

That's something all the students interviewed for this story said they appreciated.

"I'm a hands-on, 'doing stuff' kind of guy," said Dawson Kellogg, a machinist and welder in the class. He, like many others, isn't exactly sure what he wants to do for work after he graduates, but he has enough of an idea to know that the skills he's learning in Jacket Manufacturing will be useful to him in whatever career he ends up choosing.

James Minten, who serves as office manager, said, "I don't know my career goals yet, but record-keeping, time management... those are skills I'll definitely use."

"I've thought about...driving machinery, or doing construction work," said Michael Benke, a machinist. "That's pretty fun."

The kids in this year's class were selected by Skow, with this being the first year, but in the future, interested students will need to fill out an application and interview for a spot in the class just like they would for a job. It's expected to be a competitive process, with a lot of kids wanting to get in but only so many spots available.

Skow said he's interested in bringing students on before their junior or senior years, so they can stay with the program if they want to, learning and growing along with it and helping to train in younger newcomers as fresh faces come in. This year's class is made up of 10th through 12th grade students, and those that continue in the program next year will be some of those lead trainers.

"Most of the kids who start in it will stick with it," predicted Skow. "A lot of these kids will go on to work these kinds of jobs."

Skow said he picked this year's students as much for their behavior and attitude as their shop skills, looking for a well-rounded group that would be able to do the work but could also benefit from getting out of their comfort zones.

"They're handpicked, but they're not perfect," he said. "I didn't necessarily pick the 'best of the best' (of all his shop students). A lot of it has to do with character. I've been teaching 31 years and I'm a pretty good judge of that. I'm trying to do what's best for kids. ...I've got all types working together here, kids who maybe normally wouldn't know each other, and that's what it takes to run a successful business - it takes all types."

Just like basketball players, debaters or any other Perham High School team members, the kids on the Jacket Manufacturing crew are expected to represent their class and school at all times, not just in the tech center. They have matching Jacket Manufacturing polo shirts that they're encouraged to wear when out in public, and business cards they can hand out. Getting into trouble outside of school can have ramifications on their involvement in Jacket Manufacturing, just as it would for any sports or extracurricular activity.

"It's an elite status program, and kids have to continue to earn it to stay in it," said Anderson. "It gives them an upper edge when looking for employment after high school."