LEOPOLD, Ind., Dec. 4 (UPI) -- Across America, manufacturing companies in desperate need of skilled labor are turning to a previously untapped pool -- high school students.
The quickly growing trend is especially prevalent in Midwestern states where, though manufacturing is strong, companies are struggling to hire enough workers to maintain production levels.
"The skills gap is real," said Ashley Chatham, a spokeswoman for Toyota, which has 10 plants in the United States, mostly in the Midwest and South.
A report released this year by the Manufacturing Institute estimates 2.4 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled in the next decade. The most difficult to fill are skilled jobs -- digital positions and advanced production. Because of technological advancements in the industry, many of these positions require different kinds of training than traditional manufacturing.
The workforce shortage is hampering manufacturers' growth, and, as it continues, many worry it will cause businesses to shrink.
"Job shortages are not new to manufacturing, especially in recent years," the report said. "What is new to the talent shortage discussion is many manufacturers' expectation that the situation is about to get much worse."
But the news is not all bad. The grim statistics spell opportunity for workers in many rural communities -- and some of the first to recognize this are school officials.
"We want to get kids off on the right foot," said Jody French, the principal at Perry Central Community Schools, a rural district in southern Indiana.
Perry Central is among a small but growing number of Midwestern districts are bringing manufacturers into their high schools to train students in basic operations. The partnerships mean students leave high school with real-world experience -- and sometimes a job.
One of the first schools to create such a partnership was Eleva-Strum High School, located in a tiny community in rural Wisconsin.
In the early 2000s, the shop teacher there, Craig Cegielski, was concerned that his program wasn't adequately teaching kids about modern manufacturing. The school's equipment was dated, and limited. He wanted to buy new machines, but the district didn't have the thousands of dollars that would require. So he hatched a plan.
By partnering with local businesses, Cegielski thought he could earn money for new equipment by having students build and sell simple products.
A decade later, Cegielski's idea transformed into a multimillion-dollar, student-run company called Cardinal Manufacturing. Cegielski's students are trained in some of the most advanced manufacturing techniques, and their association with the program makes them highly sought workers upon graduation.
As the program's success grew, other schools began to take notice.
"It was around 2012 it started taking off," Cegielski said.
School officials from around the country now flock to Eleva-Strum to learn about the program and seek advice for starting their own. There are still relatively few such programs around the country, Cegielski said, probably a couple dozen. But he expects that number to explode in the next few years as schools, like Perry Central, catch on.
"Manufacturing around here has a negative connotation," French said. "People think it's bad work, and dirty, and hard on the body. But that's changed, there's good money in it and a good quality of life. And we have a lot of manufacturing jobs in this area."
Before launching their program, called Commodore Manufacturing, French and other school administrators at Perry Central toured Eleva-Strum. The program they created is similar, French said, with a few tweaks to fit the job opportunities in rural Indiana.
Commodore has partnered with two Indiana companies that supply work and training. Other businesses have expressed interest. But it's the students who benefit most, French said.
"It makes me feel like I'm forward in life," said Cole Kellems. "I'm only 17 years old and I already have more training than most 30-year-olds. When I graduate, I'll have a job."
That was a sentiment expressed by many of the students in the Commodore shop area last week as they worked on parts for Jasper Engines, one of the partnering companies.
"It feels like I'm actually going somewhere in life," said Chase James, a junior.
For now, many of these high school programs have partnered with small, local companies. But, increasingly, larger companies are taking notice.
Officials from Toyota this week toured Perry-Central's manufacturing program to learn how it is set up. The company plans to start a similar program near its Indiana plant.
"Corporations are seeing the value in what we're doing," said Josh Craney, the manufacturing instructor at Perry Central. "And we see our kids having a leg up."