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At GM, teens get glimpse of future prospects in manufacturing

Mike Knop was leading a group of high school students on a tour of General Motors’ Town of Tonawanda engine plant when he paused at an area protected by a metal cage.

Inside, a robotic system was rapidly examining an engine assembled at the plant, using every possible angle to search for defects.

“This is a one-of-a-kind system in the world,” Knop, a GM retiree, told the students. “It’s robotics at its best, folks.”

This was a chance for the students to see what a modern plant looks like: people and technology working together, far from the old image of a factory as a dirty, dingy place. It’s one thing to talk about the need to fill openings in manufacturing; it’s another to observe women and men working in a high-tech setting, assembling engines to put GM cars and trucks into motion.

GM Tonawanda, along with representatives of sister plants in Lockport and Rochester and Buffalo Manufacturing Works, hosted about 100 students and teachers from several area schools Wednesday for a Manufacturing Week event. With so much emphasis nowadays on careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, GM showed the students the kind of jobs that those STEM studies could lead to.

And they had to look no further than the person who welcomed them. Steve Finch, the Tonawanda plant manager, is a Hutchinson-Central Technical High School alumnus who ascended through GM’s ranks.

Manufacturing Week speaks to a larger point about the U.S. manufacturing sector, Finch said. “It’s really, really important for us to design and make things, so that we take control over the things that are produced in our country. That’s why we’re trying to stress these types of jobs, these types of careers.”

“The kind of engineering that it takes to make a place like this operate, is what we want to get you interested in,” Finch said.

Sara Shwek, a Hutch-Tech junior, was fascinated to learn how the components of an engine came together. And as someone interested in computer science, she could also picture herself in a job at the plant. “I think I would like to work here,” she said.

Bob Jesionowski, work-based learning coordinator at Hutch-Tech, said a visit like the one to GM “marries their academics right now to real-world experience.”

Most of the young women and men who joined him on the tour had an interest in computer science or engineering, so the GM visit was a good fit if they are considering it careerwise, he said.

Jesionowski came away impressed from his walk through the plant floor. “It’s amazing what they can do with technology.”

Alex Bahne, a Kenmore East student, won his spot on the tour through a competition at his school. He could see himself in a computer or engineering-related job some day, and the chance to see inside the GM plant was compelling. “I really want to see how everything works,” he said.

In another part of the GM complex, students donned protective gloves to try their hand with tools on an engine set up for demonstration. The young men and women peppered engineer Ron Ellis with questions about the components and how they were installed.

Ellis reflected on how much manufacturing has changed since he began his path into GM through a co-op program in high school. “When I started back then, the biggest guy got stuck lifting the heaviest stuff all day,” he said. It’s no longer like that, he said, with robots doing much of that heavy lifting, and technology playing a greater role on the plant floor.

Chuck Herr, shop chairman of Local 774, United Auto Workers, encouraged the students to consider careers in the auto industry, but to give careful thought about whatever they pursue.

“Making a lot of money is great, but find a job that you enjoy, that you like,” Herr said. “Because you’re going to be spending a third of your life working, at least.”


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