How One Indiana High School Is Helping to Develop Manufacturing Talent, Creatively (Slideshow)

June 8, 2022
Looking for ideas about how to help build the next generation of skilled manufacturers? Here’s a good one.

Welcome to Falcon Industries, located in Winchester, Indiana—or, more accurately, located in Winchester Community High School. 

Falcon Industries is a fully realized manufacturing organization, replete with access to a range of machinery, tools, and equipment to produce a wide variety of product, from metal signs and wheeled racks to benches and consumables. To a whole lot more.

Most impressively, it’s run by students. These students work with customers to understand their needs. They issue invoices for completed projects. They market the organization. They manufacture product. In short, they run the organization, sharpening their manufacturing, leadership and business skills in the process. Moreover, they share in the profits.

If you are looking for ideas about how to encourage young people to enter manufacturing, Falcon Industries, established in 2020, provides a great example. In April I took a trip to WCHS to see Falcon Industries up close and personal, and some of the people who make it go. Those people  include Rolland Abraham, superintendent of Randolph Central School Corp.; Brian Clawson, precision machining and advanced manufacturing instructor and advisor to Falcon Industries; WCHS Principal Karla Reed; welding instructors Ryan Farling and Roger King, manufacturing leaders from nearby organizations, and more.

They also include Larry Fast, a now-retired manufacturer and author of IndustryWeek’s Ask the Expert: Lean Leadership series. Fast graduated from high school in Winchester and is now engaged in both giving back to the community as well as helping boost the image of manufacturing as a well-paying career path.

Fast has written extensively about the program on, and I encourage you to catch up with his articles. You can find them here:

I spent the day in Winchester and learned about Falcon Industries as well as the community’s overall efforts to create a talent pipeline for manufacturing. In speaking with the high school principal, superintendent, manufacturing education instructors, Falcon Industries advisors and others, it became clear, quickly, that many individuals, organizations, levels of government and educators are engaged in building a strong manufacturing education program.

That includes manufacturers. A number of local manufacturing companies not only are customers of Falcon Industries, but they hire interns to work in their factories, and they engage with interested students to share their experiences.

Area Manufacturers Identify Program Benefits

Among the folks I spoke with during my visit was Cody Morris, plant manager at TOA Winchester, which produces vehicle parts as a Tier II automotive supplier. A military veteran, Morris began his manufacturing career as a temporary worker in manufacturing and has worked his way into increasingly higher positions.

Falcon Industries has manufactured a number of products for TOA, including various carts for parts (I included a recent prototype in the slideshow that accompanies this article.). The auto supplier’s collaboration with Winchester Community High School extends further, however. TOA has started engaging interns from WCHS, with a focus on the skilled trades. At the time of my visit, the automotive supplier had employed five interns at the Winchester site, with one of them planning to stay on upon graduation.

TOA’s Morris described the internship as an investment, one that exposes the students to the company. He noted that the students coming from WCHS’s manufacturing programs “have such a good [manufacturing] base” compared with entry-level employees with no experience and “twice their age.”

Morris also has visited the high school to speak to students, to share his path to the position he holds today.

I also met Brent McCormick, vice president of SilverTowne Mint, located in Winchester. Falcon Industries has made a number of parts for the manufacturer’s coining press, several of which are pictured in the accompanying slideshow. And similar to TOA, SilverTowne Mint is giving WCHS students real world work experience on the shop floor.

McCormick says that among the reasons he engages with Falcon Industries—and the advanced manufacturing students, is to, hopefully, spark an interest among some of those students to see SilverTowne Mint as a career option—and perhaps entice them to stay local after they graduate.

Moreover, he says, “Our obligation is to give back to the community.”

Not every student participant will pursue a manufacturing career, McCormick acknowledges. Even among those who do, they may not stay local. He understands. “To any kids I will say follow your dreams, but I also want to give them a path to stay locally,” he says.

Tools of the Trade

My Winchester visit included a visit to the high school’s advanced manufacturing center and the opportunity to meet some of the students who help run Falcon Industries. The manufacturing center is named after Larry Fast, who has devoted significant time, energy and dollars to helping transform the school’s industrial arts space to a well-equipped manufacturing center. Much of Falcon Industries’ work is accomplished here. In addition, Fast has created scholarship opportunities for students who want to attend trade school  to improve their manufacturing skills. (Ivy Tech Community College sees many of those scholars.)

Among the Falcon Industries students I met were Elijah Ziegler, the incoming welding manager, and Conagher Hopkins, a graduating senior and machinist for the manufacturing company. Hopkins says that manufacturing hadn’t always been part of his career plans (being a game designer was) but that he enjoys the hands-on aspect of manufacturing as well as the problem-solving skills required of him. Indeed, at the time of my visit, Hopkins was using those problem-solving skills to both troubleshoot and learn how to program a robot that had been donated to the center.

Also on hand were Kimberly Dirksen, a now-graduated senior and Falcon Industries’ office manager, and Ruthie Rose, marketing manager. Rose will be stepping into the office manager position as Dirksen departs for college, where she expects to pursue agribusiness management. Dirksen discussed the pride she took in helping launch Falcon Industries—she even worked on the logo—and the public speaking, time management and other management skills she gained through the experience. One of her main jobs as the office manager was to work directly with the customers, and the experience has helped her become a better communicator, Dirksen said.

I also met several students who were practicing welding techniques. At least one of them had been approved to join Falcon Industries in the upcoming year. Students must be juniors or seniors to participate in Falcon Industries. (Did I mention there is an interview process to join the organization?)

In the end, it was a whirlwind tour of one community’s efforts to grow their manufacturing might—and perhaps even entice other manufacturers to locate in the area with the lure of homegrown, skilled talent. It is an impressive endeavor and illustrates what like minds can do when they unite for a cause. 

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