by Jim Boyle

Editor

After tours of three Elk River manufacturers, local students, their parents and community members heard from a panel of speakers at Metal Craft who hammered home the idea that for mechanically inclined high school students who like to work with their hands, there are lucrative and fulfilling opportunities and careers awaiting them in the manufacturing industry.

And they may be closer to them than they think with the number of internship programs and technical colleges designed to launch students into their careers faster than the traditional four-year degree programs.

Riley LeBlanc — a 2017 high school graduate from PACT Charter School and a student at Dunwoody College of Technology who will graduate from there in May 2022 — can attest. The panelist, who attended Elk River High School through 10th grade, has watched as his peers at Dunwoody have landed full-time jobs well before they graduate and are now making much more money than they dreamed they would doing something they love.

Some of them, like LeBlanc, took a detour through a traditional college pathway, thinking a four-year degree was what they needed or wanted. He started at Anoka-Ramsey Community College the fall after finishing high school and quickly realized it wasn’t for him.

LeBlanc is working at Metal Craft and so are his older brother, Ryan, a 2019 graduate of Elk River High School, and, his younger brother, Rory, a student at ERHS.

Kellen Michener, a 2021 Elk River High School graduate and another one of the panelists, has found an even quicker path into manufacturing. He is coming up on having worked 2 1/2 years at Metal Craft. He started as an intern while in high school through a partnership between the Elk River Area School District’s Career and Technical Education program and Metal Craft. He has moved on from being the intern and has progressed in his work with the maker of precision parts, including medical components.

Trisha Mowry, the CEO of Metal Craft, offered her perspective on the panel as someone who grew up in her family’s precision machining business and also as a mom to Riley LeBlanc.

Metal Craft was started when she was a young kid by her father, Jack Mowry, and she and her brother have carried on her father’s legacy with facilities in Elk River and another one called Riverside in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

“We each have three kids, and we hope our kids join (the family business),” she said. “Our hope is that they all ultimately do what they love and desire.”

E.J. Daigle, the dean of advanced manufacturing and robotics at Dunwoody, shared his experiences at the college of technology during the panel discussion.

He has been at Dunwoody for 20 years, leading young men and women into manufacturing careers. He manages programs in automation, robotics, machining, engineering, drafting and design, welding, metal fabrication, automotive and health sciences.

The panel discussion capped off the third Cool Jobs Tour on Oct. 12 put on by the Elk River Area School District Career and Technical Education program with the support and partnership of local businesses, directors of economic development and the Elk River Area Chamber of Commerce. The event was among many activities throughout the state for October’s Manufacturing Month.

Kelly Read, a recruiter for Metal Craft, led the panel discussion.

“We hope that you have been impressed with what you saw, the technology, the equipment, the precision work that we do and just how clean, bright and modern our facility is,” she said.

Opportunities better than ever

As Daigle surveyed the crowd, he told the middle and high school students in attendance he envied them.

“The opportunities in manufacturing are better than they have ever been, specifically machining,” he said. “We don’t graduate near enough students.”

Daigle said 15 will graduate this year and all 15 are already working full time in the industry.

“Companies will call and tell me they want to hire our best graduate,” Daigle said. “I tell them, ‘You should have called a year ago.’ The majority (of our students) are getting jobs in their first or second semester.”

LeBlanc took detour before tech college

LeBlanc said he started thinking about his post-high-school plans during his junior year when it was being pushed by his teachers and guidance counselors.

“They work on you to go to a four-year university,” LeBlanc said. “That’s what I thought I needed to do. That was incorrect.”

He told the crowd he concluded as a high schooler he wanted to get a computer science degree from the University of Minnesota, but he didn’t want to pay U of M prices for his generals. He started at ARCC to work on his generals.

He concluded there was no way he could do 18 credits a semester, and he ended up quitting school.

“I didn’t want to do any school anymore,” he said.

After a six month break his mom “convinced” him to go down for a tour with E.J. Daigle at Dunwoody.

“Within two hours, E.J. had convinced me to enroll,” he said. “That’s about all it took.”

He hasn’t regretted the decision once.

LeBlanc has a sour taste in his mouth from all the advice he got in high school that cast shadows over technical colleges and the earning potential for those who attend them.

He said what he has discovered is the career opportunities are very lucrative and quickly outpace the salaries being made by teachers and guidance counselors.

“Tech colleges are a viable option,” LeBlanc said. “I don’t get why they don’t talk about them.”

Trisha Mowry asks her children to learn, gain experience before they commit to the family business

Trisha Mowry was asked what steps she took to help her son Riley LeBlanc figure out life after high school.

Mowry explained that for her family they wanted all three of their children to learn and experience things after high school before ever committing to work in the family’s business, if they so chose to do that.

“I tried to encourage the three boys to look for what they wanted to do,” she said. “I didn’t want to push. (I figured if I pushed), they would go in a different direction anyway.”

Mowry said it was tough to watch LeBlanc struggle while attending Anoka-Ramsey Community College.

“Riley chose community college,” she said. “That’s what his friends were doing, that was the path. I knew that was probably not a good fit.”

It wasn’t.

But she did, however, convince him to tour Dunwoody and check it out.

Kellen Michener jump-started career with high school internship

Michener jump-started his future while still in high school with a paid internship at Metal Craft, one of many made available throughout the school district.

He learned of the opportunity while taking an engineering design and manufacturing class from his teacher Tim Hahn after a guest speaker addressed the class about a machine shop in Zimmerman.

Once he turned 16 and could get his license, he pursued the opportunity have Metal Craft.

“I knew the Mowrys, and I knew it was a job shop,” he said. “I applied and how have been a little over two years.”

Michener admitted the job wasn’t amazing right off the bat. One of his initial tasks during his first few months was putting parts in bags.

“Because I was willing to do that, I worked my way up the trust ladder,” he said. “I always showed up and I did whatever you put in front of me.”

As time went on, he got to run machines more and more.

“I was learning from people on the floor and asking a lot of questions,” he said. “And the more I learned, the more I grew and all of a sudden I don’t remember when the last time was that I was in shipping.”

Michener was able to balance the paid internship with his high school studies and was still able to be involved in school activities.

For students who are mechanically inclined and like to work with their hands, he recommended students take the engineering, design and manufacturing class. He said there are two CNC mills to learn on and a couple more lathes. He said he also took a CAD class (the programming side of machining).

He also recommended students join the robotics club.

“I took everything I learned and put it into practice,” he said, “and who doesn’t like robots. They’re just cool.”

He helped make parts for the competition robots, and by the end was a captain of the manufacturing side.

The CTE class that he took that allowed him to do the internship was also key.

“It got me out of school an hour earlier,” he said, “allowing me to work as much as I could while still getting all my homework done.”

Advice from LeBlanc and Mowry

Riley LeBlanc had advice for the students looking at their options.

“When you’re looking at college, tech school or vocational school, keep in mind you’re paying them and you’re the customer,” he said. “Ask them to show you what you will be doing.”

He said it’s important to see what it is you’re going to learn, what a classroom looks like and whether it’s a morning lecture for 20 people or one for 300 people.

“You’re not wasting anyone’s time,” he said. “It’s important to find out what you actually want, so you don’t waste your time trying to get a degree you really don’t want.”

He also recommended to apply to all colleges that you think you might want to attend.

“I didn’t do that, and that was a mistake,” he said.

Mowry said every kid is different and every situation is different, but she encouraged parents to help their kids explore opportunities.

“If you get the opportunity to help them experience a lot of variety,” she said. “There are a lot of possibilities out there.

“There’s a lot of cool things that happen right in our own community, and there are a lot of good options.”

Mowry said tours, like the Cool Jobs Tour and others, are an important way to explore and see what is needed. She said there are different types of learning needed for different career fields. She said there is a need for kids to achieve four-year degrees, and some will do really well with that.

“We also need the kids that need to learn hands-on,” she said.

Daigle said the thing about a student like LeBlanc, who wanted to study computer science, is he’s more of a computer scientist today than a junior- or senior-level computer science major at the U of M.

“He’s programming controls, drives, sensors, motors, and other things every single day,” Diagle said.

He said he watched a transformation with LeBlanc: He went from being the student who was reluctant to get up early to the student who’s in the classroom first thing in the morning before anyone else.

“Something happened,” he said, suggesting it might have been the hands-on learning that motivated him like never before. “If you want to read a thick book, that’s great. If you learn by doing and getting your hands dirty, the tech system is set up for learners like you.”

At Dunwoody, they are doing 3D printing, machining, injection molding and running CAD/CAM software, to name a few things.

“It’s incredible what you can do,” he said.

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