Shawn Quinn and Joe Frank at RCO Engineering.
Steve Koss Shawn Quinn and Joe Frank at RCO Engineering.

In 2015 Joe Frank was a senior at Lakeview High School in St. Clair Shores when his class took a tour of RCO Engineering in Roseville. The tour was part of Manufacturing Day, an annual event that brings students into manufacturing workplaces across metro Detroit and the nation. Frank took an immediate interest in what he saw at RCO and now, four years later, he’s a full-time employee in the company’s design department.

“I thought it seemed like a cool place,” Frank says. “I asked to do a job interview after and they put me on part-time and then hired me full-time.”

Joe Frank at RCO Engineering.
Joe Frank at RCO Engineering.
Steve Koss

That sentence, “I thought it seemed like a cool place,” is exactly the reason Manufacturing Day was created in the first place. The event exists to convince young people that not only are there great career opportunities at the many manufacturing facilities throughout the region, but they often are, indeed, “cool places.” That’s why many Southeast Michigan counties, including Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne, have partnered with local companies to take an active approach in organizing Manufacturing Day events.

Jobs in robotics, automation, computer programming, and engineering are all present in many manufacturing facilities today. They can be high-tech and high-paying. And they’re often the opposite of the grimy, hands-on manual labor younger generations tend to associate with manufacturing.

Filling the talent pipeline is key. The current manufacturing workforce is getting older, closer to retirement age. And companies are worried that the younger generation won’t be there to fill in those gaps.

Manufacturing Day exists to let students know that these jobs exist and they’re there for the taking. And so, too, are the traditional trades, should they be pulled that way instead.

“Events like these can be pivotal when growing up. Maybe you wouldn’t know this is something you could do if you don’t see it firsthand,” says Shawn Quinn, director of engineering at RCO Engineering. “We’re always looking for talent, for people like Joe.”

Joe Frank and Shawn Quinn at RCO Engineering.
Joe Frank and Shawn Quinn at RCO Engineering.
Steve Koss

Like RCO Engineering, Innovation Automation and sister company Livernois Engineering in Romulus have been involved with Manufacturing Day since its inception in 2012. That was a couple years before the counties took an active role in arranging Manufacturing Day partnerships between visiting schools and host companies.

Innovation Automation and Livernois Engineering take a particularly engaged approach to the Manufacturing Day festivities. While most businesses host one to two schools in a day, seven different schools toured the two companies this year.

“We operate a little outside of the norm,” says Jeff Stratton, applications marketing specialist and Manufacturing Day coordinator for the companies. “We reach out to the schools ourselves. Ownership closes down the businesses for the entire day for the tours. We’re actively recruiting. … We try to make it as full a day as possible.”

Stratton credits the companies’ owners, Mike and Ursula Bongiovanni, for their proactive approach to MFG Day. He says the owners appreciate giving back, acknowledging the students’ need for education while recognizing their own need for skilled trades workers.

“They’ve really embraced it and then doubled down on it,” Stratton says.

Tasked with coordinating each year’s Manufacturing Day, Stratton begins planning about 10 weeks prior to the actual event. He pinpoints what machines will be out on the shop floors. He assigns tour guides.

For the actual day, each class is greeted as soon as they get off the bus. After a brief five- to 10-minute introduction, groups of students are whisked away to four different “experiences” across the two facilities. Different areas in each facility demonstrate the process of manufacturing, from design and engineering to the finished product.

This year, Stratton asked himself, “What are kids interested in right now?” The conclusion he came to was a focus on efforts in sustainability, which he then built the tours around.

In recruiting schools, Stratton says he asked around for middle school students. While Manufacturing Day events often involve high school juniors and seniors, Stratton jumped at the chance to show off manufacturing career opportunities to even younger students, who may have yet to decide what they want to be when they grow up.

“Companies complain that they don’t have enough workers but then they don’t open their doors to these sorts of events. This is a way to fill that talent pipeline,” Stratton says. “I’m already looking forward to next year, to try and top ourselves.”

As with the many other companies that participate in Manufacturing Day, Rich Bondar, president and co-owner of MPD Welding in Orion Township, appreciates the value that the annual event brings to the region and its industry.

Filling that workforce pipeline can be tough in the trades, says Bondar. Manufacturing Day exposes students to both what his company does and what the students could be doing, even as soon as next year.

MPD Welding, like RCO Engineering and other businesses throughout the region, has hired a number of employees who were once students taking guided tours of manufacturing facilities, filling that talent pipeline just as Manufacturing Day intends.

Joe Frank at RCO Engineering.
Joe Frank at RCO Engineering.
Steve Koss

“This is a lot different than what students see in the classroom. It’s been a good experience for both us and them,” Bondar says. “It’s especially nice because the students come in young and fresh and eager, and then we can train them properly. We let them know that if they’re truly interested in this as a profession, when they turn 18, come out and see us and we’ll get them a job.”