The words “manufacturing jobs” get tossed around a lot.

They’re commonly used with phrases such as “going to China” or “going to Mexico” and adjectives such as “grimy” and “blue collar.”

On Friday, more than 600 students from eight local school districts participated in Manufacturing Day, a national event designed to introduce high-schoolers to the realities of what it means to work in a field that many job seekers have dismissed.

The students started with a tour of Blackhawk Technical College’s Advanced Manufacturing Training Center in Milton. They then toured at least one or two local businesses.

Nearly 30 businesses took part, including such companies as United Alloy, Baker Manufacturing, Tigre ADS USA, Angi Energy Systems, Scot Forge, Toledo Molding and Die, and Seneca Foods.

The event was sponsored by the Janesville School District, BTC and Rock County 5.0, a public/private initiative that advances economic development.

Why manufacturing? Haven’t all those jobs been shipped overseas? Won’t robots be doing them in the future?

The average manufacturing worker will be 56 in 2020, according to manufacturing institute.org. By 2025, more than 3.4 million jobs will be available in the United States, and the Manufacturing Institute predicts that a skills gap could leave as many as 2 million jobs unfilled.

Drive down Milton Avenue in Janesville and you’ll see billboards advertising the need for manufacturing employees throughout southcentral Wisconsin.

“Employers are screaming for machinists,” said Richard Grossen, a Computer Numeric Control instructor at BTC. “We always think everything is going to go overseas, but we have quick turnaround times now.”

Yes, some manufacturing has gone away.

“When I applied for my job here, they asked me where I saw manufacturing in 10 years,” Grossen said. “I said, ‘You know that little widget in the Happy Meal? That’s going to be made in China. But if it’s something more complicated, something that has to be made fast, it’s going to be made here.”

Manufacturing salaries range from $20 to $28 an hour and much higher, depending on a worker’s skills, he said.

A search through Monster .com’s want ads showed CNC operators starting at about $24 an hour. One company had a training program that paid people $12 to $16 an hour to learn the skill.

“If the jobs weren’t here, I wouldn’t have companies calling me up and saying, ‘Why aren’t you putting out more students?’” Grossen said.

Part of that “why” might be students’ perceptions of those jobs, said Steve Pophal, Janesville School District superintendent.

“Students have to see what the possibilities are,” Pophal said. “This gives them a powerful lens to look through as they think about their futures.”

Many students don’t know what a modern manufacturing facility looks like, said Patty Hernandez, a college and career readiness coordinator.

“Students and parents tend to think manufacturing work is dark, dirty, dangerous and unskilled,” she said. “Or they think they are dead-end jobs.”

Instead, students will find that such jobs can be “great careers with income to sustain families,” she said.

Perhaps more critical, Manufacturing Day helps students understand the importance of their educations, Hernandez said.

“It’s important to give them exposure to real work environments, to real people doing real jobs,” she said.

On Friday, instructors at BTC’s Advanced Manufacturing Training Center and business people told students that math and soft skills—the ability to communicate, be on time and work with a team—are crucial to their success.

Algebra, which many kids declare they “will never use again,” is something they will use almost every day on the job.

In fact, the more math, the better, Grossen said.

“I don’t always tell them that because it scares them,” he said. “But we start with kids who can’t even do fractions and take baby steps from there.”

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