MaryBeth Matzek: Project G.R.I.L.L. heats up interest in manufacturing jobs

Getting high school students interested in manufacturing careers can be a hard sell. A Sheboygan County program, however, is changing that by showing students that manufacturing careers are rewarding and utilize the latest technology.

Project G.R.I.L.L. (Growing Readiness In Learning and Leading) pairs high school students with manufacturing companies to build a customized grill from scratch. The students earn up to nine technical college credits and get an up-close look at manufacturing careers. Participating companies benefit from the knowledge that by exposing more students to career options in manufacturing they may be recruiting future workers.

Project G.R.I.L.L pairs eight manufacturers with eight high schools to build a charcoal grill that will successfully cook 12 Johnsonville brats at one time within an hour of being lit. (Johnsonville is based in Sheboygan County after all). With 40 percent of all Sheboygan County jobs tied to manufacturing, encouraging more students to consider it as a career path is important, says Keith Anderson, chair of Project G.R.I.L.L. and a technical training manager at Masters Gallery Food Inc.

“We’re looking our next employees and this gets them in here and see what we do,” he says. “Students have to do everything from contacting the companies to get the ball rolling, to working on the design and the building the grill.”

The students and companies decide together where the grill will end up, whether it’s the business, the school or on the auction block to raise money for the program, Anderson says. “The grill itself is just the vehicle, it’s all the stuff along the way that they’ll learn is the huge part,” he says. “They’re learning about soft skills and teamwork.”

Project G.R.I.L.L. started 10 years ago in Sheboygan County as a partnership between manufacturers, local schools and Lakeshore Technical College. A similar program is in place in Fond du Lac County and the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce launched its program this year.

Through the 30-week program, Anderson says students get a firsthand look at what it takes to take an idea from concept to completion.

“We’ve seen students who have gone through the program enter careers in manufacturing, whether it’s as an engineer, an operator or come here directly after high school,” Anderson says. “We’re showing students that our manufacturing facilities are bright places and it’s a vibrant, constantly changing atmosphere. These aren’t boring jobs.”

This past summer, Project G.R.I.L.L. received a $4,500 AT&T Innovation & Investment Award to help fund the program. It’s also being recognized next month by the Northeast Wisconsin Manufacturing Alliance with a community partnership award at its annual Excellence in Manufacturing/K-12 Partnership Awards.

“One of my goals is to get more students involved in these programs,” he says. “We’re always trying to get better.”

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