STEVENSVILLE — More than 2,000 manufacturing jobs are expected to open up in Southwest Michigan over the next 10 years, and the Berrien County Career & Technical Education (CTE) Consortium is working to help fill that need.

That’s according to Lakeshore Superintendent Phil Freeman, who spoke with a group of manufacturing officials Wednesday as they toured Lakeshore High School’s CTE programs as part of Manufacturing Week in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties, sponsored by Kinexus in Benton Harbor.

Freeman told the manufacturers he needs their help to make sure the schools are giving the students the right training and to get the students excited about pursuing manufacturing careers.

Not only is manufacturing where the jobs are, but they are good-paying jobs, he said.

Officials from LECO in St. Joseph, Eagle Technologies in Bridgman and Shoreham, Vickers Engineering from New Troy and Ausco Products in Benton Township were just some of the people who toured the school’s CTE facilities, including machine tool, CNA, vocational auto, welding and CAD classrooms and workshops.

When Freeman asked how many of their companies have job openings right now, all of them raised their hands.

“The jobs that are available for our kids are the jobs that you guys are trying to fill and we need to match that up better than we’ve been doing,” he said. 

Freeman said he’s been inviting manufacturing officials to tour the high school’s CTE programs for years.

“We think we’ve got something special here,” he said. “The community invested over $5 million in (CTE) through bonds. ... That’s a big investment for a community this size.”

Chris Machiniak, regional CTE director with Berrien RESA, said 13 school districts in the county offer CTE courses, with 2,500 students a year participating. Students in the consortium can travel to different school districts to take CTE classes that aren’t offered in their home districts.

He said about 400 students take advantage of that option.

“Right now, transportation (and) start times are hurdles that we deal with when we’re trying to share kids back and forth,” he said. 

Kinexus officials started hosting Manufacturing Day a few years ago. It has been so popular that this year, they turned it into a week of events, said Jeff Hannan, director of business solutions at Kinexus, who is also the Lakeshore School board treasurer.

“We feel the demand is there to get more students exposed to the career opportunities in manufacturing,” he said.

Hannan said 1,300 students signed up to tour manufacturing facilities this week. Besides at Lakeshore High School, he said manufacturing officials are touring CTE facilities in Coloma this week.

“Our goal, really, is to get the businesses into the schools to see what is being taught to the kids,” he said.

After the tour, business officials shared ideas with educators on how to make the programs better.

Also on the tour was 6th District U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph. He said that as he travels around the district, one of the things manufacturers are concerned about is where they are going to find workers.

He said two companies in Portage – Pfizer and Stryker – are creating 800 new jobs and investing $1 billion in new buildings and equipment because of the tax cuts signed into law by President Donald Trump in December 2017.

Upton said the mayor of Sturgis recently told him that his city doesn’t have enough housing units for the workers that the local companies need. He said his city further doesn’t have enough workers to build the homes that are needed.

“That is the situation that much of our district and, frankly, much of our state is in,” he said. “... They’re pulling their hair out looking for talented people.”

He said students need to know that factories are no longer dark, grimy places their grandfathers worked in.

“It’s different. I see that when I’m out and about,” he said.

He said the U.S. Congress supported CTE this summer by reauthorizing the Perkins Act, which provides federal support to state and local CTE programs.

In addition, he said Trump signed a spending bill last Friday that includes almost a $100 million increase for CTE.

He said both measures passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support.

“We have to do a better job of telling our kids, our students, that there are really some wonderful opportunities out there day one,” he said. “... You don’t need a high finagled degree to be able to raise your family and have a pretty decent quality of life, particularly here in Southwest Michigan.”

Freeman said educators started cutting CTE-type programs in the 1980s when people were pushing for everyone to get a four-year college degree.

“I was shocked to see some of the programs cut as quickly as they were cut,” he said.

Programs like automotive, welding and machine tooling disappeared from high schools across the nation.

Now, he said many of the openings for high paying jobs are in manufacturing companies. 

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege