American Packaging Corporation tour

A group of local teachers recently toured American Packaging Corporation, where they talked with company representatives about workforce development and the types of skills students need to start working right out of high school.

Employers want many things in their workers – productivity, positivity, and reliability as a short list.

For American Packaging Corporation in DeForest, “personal accountability” is a major sticking point. It’s the difference between suffering from a large turnover rate versus a workforce that commits to a company and rises up through the ranks. Company representatives said there is significant management investment to recruit and retain workers that display promising qualities.

“We’re not hiring to keep people at the bottom level,” said Facility Manager Josh Voelker. “That’s not our plan.”

Voelker said he, himself, is a walking example. According to Voelker, he started out at the company “sweeping floors” and now leads management of the facility.

The 175,000 square foot factory was built in 2016 and features modern equipment for designing and printing package designs. Many of the company’s products are regular features on grocery store aisles, and plans to expand the plant and increase number of employees – currently around 75 – are in the works.

But even with state-of-the-art equipment and an assortment of internal policies to promote advancement of workers, policies including tuition reimbursement and in-house certifications, the Philadelphia-based company reports that it’s struggling to fill vacant, local positions.

Now, the DeForest Area School District is showing interest and recently sent 11 teachers on a tour of the factory. Located in DeForest’s northern industrial park, the teachers visited the American Packaging plant Aug. 9 and heard from company representatives. Topics of discussion included workforce development and the types of skills needed to start working right out of high school.

According to School/Community Relations Coordinator and Business Teacher Debbie Brewster, the tour was a tool for teachers to immerse themselves in the demands of today’s workforce.

“Teachers can help bring real-life examples into the classroom,” Brewster said. “As a school system, we’re going … with what skills are needed so kids can plan for their future.”

She said similar work over the years has seen the development of community and educational partnerships that allow high schoolers to go out and work in an internship or youth apprenticeship. The school district also offers programming and computer design classes, skills that are highly sought out in today’s high-tech manufacturing industry.

High schoolers are required by state law to draw out a future employment plan, Brewster said, and getting teachers familiar with different industries expands the students’ horizons.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, preliminary unemployment in Wisconsin for June was at 2.9 percent overall. That number is slightly higher for the state’s manufacturing industry, which was at 3.8 percent, according to preliminary June data.

Since January, manufacturing unemployment in Wisconsin rose more than 1.5 percent, when the DOL reported 2.1 percent unemployment.

Business Teacher John Webster recognizes that not all students pursue college after graduating high school. Workforce options for those who don’t earn a college degree deserve exploration, Webster said, before pupils move on from the school district.

Webster said a major takeaway from the American Packaging tour was information about what the manufacturer desires in its employees, including “work ethic and communication.” Those skills, Webster said, can be implemented in part through targeted writing and speech assignments.

“I can share and just relate exactly what (local manufacturers) are looking for out of future employees,” Webster said. “And the fact they can be making $30 an hour, five years out of high school, is huge.”

As part of the touring, teachers also visited EVCO Plastics and the Little Potato Company, both of which are located within DeForest. Another group of 13 teachers is scheduled to tour ABS Global in DeForest Aug. 21, along with Bell Labs and UAS Labs in Windsor.

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