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A private Fort Wayne foundation hopes to change the public perception of manufacturing and draw people into the field.

The Don Wood Foundation has launched the Ignite Advanced Manufacturing campaign, an initiative that seeks to build awareness, interest and coalitions in the industry by strengthening ties between students, families, educators, organizations and companies in the field, the Journal Gazette reported.

By 2028, more than 31,500 positions in Allen County alone will be in advanced manufacturing, said Patrick Buesching, the foundation’s vice president of strategic initiatives. 

But last year, only 460 high school students in the county were enrolled in advanced manufacturing programs, Buesching told several dozen community leaders during a news conference at the northwest-side foundation.

“This demonstrates the staggering talent gap that has the potential to negatively impact the advanced manufacturing industry and our community,” he said.

The Don Wood Foundation was created in 2018 to provide support for machine tool, industrial and engineering technologies, sales, entrepreneurship and leadership through funding and advocacy work. Its focus now is to “rebrand” the sector, Buesching said.

The new initiative’s goal is to create a “talent pipeline” for the fast-growing region, said Whitney Bandemer, who chairs the foundation’s board of trustees.

“If we don’t, the impact will be immense,” she said.

Laura Macknick, the foundation’s president and CEO, said the “dark, dingy, antiquated” image of manufacturing work must be replaced by a more realistic depiction that includes innovative technologies and high-paying careers.

“We want to change the narrative that exists around manufacturing,” Macknick said in a phone interview. “How do we get youth today to … consider advanced manufacturing for career paths?”

It’s time to remove the stigma about “blue-collar work,” help families navigate programs and resources in the field and allow young people to see locally available career opportunities firsthand, Buesching said.

Bob Vitoux, president and CEO of OrthoWorx in Warsaw, said advanced manufacturing jobs include specialties people wouldn’t necessarily expect, even polishing and making art.

“It’s not what we remember our grandparents doing,” he said.

However, some students who are interested in manufacturing don’t know where to learn more about it, Buesching said.

Trine University President John Shannon said programs that allow high school students to pursue technical certifications and dual-credit courses can prepare them with skills for the future.

At the same time, he said, “higher education needs to be more involved in understanding workforce development needs.”

Northeast Indiana Works has been partnering with the Don Wood Foundation for two years to expose young people to careers in manufacturing through a website, www.manufacturing.beginswith.me and through robust, award-winning social media campaigns that have generated more than 2.5 million impressions. Northeast Indiana Works has also been spearheading Manufacturing Experience day camps for middle school students.

DeKalb High School is already seeing positive results from a program it launched this school year through a partnership with Don Wood Foundation, said Steve Teders, superintendent of the DeKalb County Central United School District.

Currently, 28 sophomores and juniors are part of the Baron Advanced Manufacturing program, and program director Jonathan Clingan hopes to open it up to freshmen and seniors next year. Students learn about various aspects of the field, such as automation, welding, robotics and more.

“They get exposed to a little bit of everything,” said Clingan, a 25-year veteran of the manufacturing industry.

Teders said five paid business internships are offered through the program, creating pathways for students who otherwise might not know how to access resources and opportunities.

“It’s a game-changer,” he added.

Buesching asked the audience to share information about advanced manufacturing employment opportunities with anyone and everyone they know.

“The effort will only succeed because of the work being done by everyone in this room and so many others,” he said.

More information is available online at igniteadvancedmanufacturing.com

(Northeast Indiana Works contributed to this Journal Gazette article.)