Creating a direct pipeline from high school to tech jobs

Many of LakeView Technology Academy’s graduates are leaving high school with half of an associate’s degree in their pockets. Others are entering four-year universities as second-semester freshmen.

By BETSY THATCHER | Sept. 24, 2015

High-schoolers at a Kenosha County school are building underwater robots, viewing life up-close through an electron microscope and running world-class industrial robots.

A lot of businesses and educators are looking to them to lead the way to a better-prepared and larger technical workforce.

LakeView Technology Academy in Pleasant Prairie, a Kenosha Unified School District specialty high school, has been garnering the attention of regional industry leaders and educators from other parts of the country for its unique partnership with manufacturers and Gateway Technical College in Kenosha.

Many of LakeView’s graduates are leaving high school with half of an associate’s degree in their pockets. Others are entering four-year universities as second-semester freshmen.

That’s a growing trend in a lot of Wisconsin high schools, but what sets LakeView apart is its unique environment and the unprecedented access its students have to state-of-the-art, real-world equipment and knowledge.

A good number of them can program and set up the same robots that are the gold standard in manufacturing plants all over the world.

This is not your father’s shop class.

LakeView is housed in a former warehouse in LakeView Corporate Park in the shadow of the massive We Energies Pleasant Prairie power plant.

It looks like a business, runs like a business and is preparing high school kids to gain the confidence and knowledge to fill the growing need for American workers in highly technical manufacturing and engineering jobs.

In addition to its close relationship with Gateway, LakeView is part of an effort that includes the Kenosha Area Business Alliance, WISPARK Corp., the Marquette University Opus College of Engineering and Milwaukee School of Engineering, as well as 44 other colleges of engineering throughout the United States.

While many Wisconsin school districts have implemented high-level curriculums in their applied engineering and technology programs, LakeView operates in many ways like a high-tech manufacturing facility with highly skilled employees at the controls. Some of the students plan, design, manufacture and market products.

Employers are clamoring for the skills these students are acquiring.

“The skilled workforce shortage is real throughout southeastern Wisconsin,” says Bryan D. Albrecht, president and chief executive officer of Gateway. “Our response has been swift. Our efforts are critical to the manufacturing base of the communities we serve.”

Gateway serves Kenosha, Racine and Walworth counties.

The college’s partnership with the Kenosha Unified School District has been a key component in the response to area employers, Albrecht says.

He also credits the Kenosha Area Business Alliance and its financial and scholarship support of the school as well as its advocacy of the manufacturing and engineering programs offered at the school. “We’ve got a voice in the community of manufacturers saying, ‘This is the type of education that we’re striving for,’ ” Albrecht says.

Steve Kohlmann, executive director of the Independent Business Association of Wisconsin, agrees that more facilities like that are needed.

“There’s a lot of dismay among employers with finding good, quality workers,” Kohlmann says. “One of business owners’ concerns is that everybody wants the kids to go to (four-year) college, as opposed to skilled trades training.

“LakeView is doing things we would have never thought of back in the days of just shop class. They’re really pushing the envelope with the kinds of courses they’re offering in engineering and biomedical engineering.”

Members of IBAW toured the facility earlier this year.

“This is a really hands-on school,” says Kohlmann. “They’re building underwater robots. They have a club that builds high-efficiency electric race cars. They designed and built their own sprocket because they couldn’t find what they needed.”

The students are learning on equipment that no other high school in Wisconsin has, he says.

“It’s an important facility that really needs to be replicated elsewhere,” Kohlmann adds.

The key, says LakeView director and principal William R. Hittman, is that the partnership with Gateway allows for college instructors to work with the academy’s teachers and students, and the cost of buying expensive, up-to-date equipment is shared by both institutions.

By pooling resources, students in both schools are learning on the same FANUC robots that large manufacturers have on their factory floors. FANUC Corp., based in Japan, is one of the largest makers of industrial robots in the world. The school has a pair of FANUC robots.

In June, a $77,000 electron microscope was delivered to the facility, and LakeView and Gateway teachers began learning how to use it for implementation in classes this semester.

Students also can learn how to use the schools’ 3D printer, which prints three-dimensional objects from digital files. The use of 3D printers is expected to transform almost every major industry by 2020, according to Wohlers Associates. The firm provides annual trend and forecast data for the 3D printing — or additive manufacturing — industry, as it is also known.

Worldwide, additive manufacturing is expected to grow from $3.07 billion in revenue in 2013 to more than $21 billion by 2020, according to the 2015 Wohlers Report.

Doug Landwer, manufacturing manager at R+D Custom Automation in Lake Villa, Ill., visits the career fair at Gateway each spring. R+D has had a relationship with Gateway for several years. Landwer knows that R+D, which builds automated assembly systems, can find qualified workers and interns there.

Of R+D’s 36 employees, two are Gateway graduates. Gateway and LakeView students have been interns and in skilled positions such as electrical assemblers and draftsmen at R+D.

“Those kids are being exposed to the latest and greatest equipment, the same equipment we have on our floor,” Landwer says. “Wisconsin puts money into their programs like that.”

The schools also are investing in a computer-controlled lathe and a computer-controlled milling machine. The purchase of that kind of equipment would not be possible for the Kenosha district without the partnership with Gateway, Hittman says.

“Those new machines will be used day and night,” says Hittman, whose career in education has spanned 49 years, several of them as school superintendent for the Whitnall and Sheboygan Area school districts.

“We get a really good bang for the taxpayer’s buck,” says John Nelson, instructor of automated manufacturing at Gateway, “because all of the equipment we use during the day is used not only by the high school, but we’re also a Gateway campus in the evening.”

Gateway has its automated manufacturing systems technology and electro-mechanical technology courses based at the facility, according to Nelson.

“We buy a $40,000 robot, and it’s being used from 8 in the morning until 10 at night,” Nelson says. He is among the Gateway instructors who teach college classes to the high-schoolers.

In addition to ensuring the students are learning to use state-of-the-art equipment, Hittman reviews national and regional labor trends every year as he plans the next year’s course offerings.

Several of the jobs on the U.S. Department of Labor’s annual list of top 10 occupations in recent years involve information technology. The U.S. job market needs “1.3 million people to go into IT jobs each year, and only about 40% of people (needed) are in the pipeline,” Hittman says.

This school year, LakeView has begun offering advanced placement computer science, which Hittman describes as “advanced Java,” referring to the general purpose computer programming language.

“We need 109,000 engineers a year to enter into our economy,” Hittman says. “For the 26th year in a row, we are putting out only 60-some-thousand engineers.”

LakeView concentrates on automated manufacturing systems and IT systems under the Project Lead the Way (PLTW) curriculum program. PLTW is the nation’s leading provider of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs for K-12 students.

Lakeview offers courses in engineering and biomedical science using the PLTW curriculum.

The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that STEM jobs will grow 17% by 2018 — nearly double the growth for non-STEM fields. By that year, the nation will have more than 1.2 million unfilled STEM positions due to a lack of qualified workers, the agency estimates.

In 2014, the average wage for all STEM occupations was $85,570, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There were more than 8.3 million STEM jobs as of May 2014, representing about 6.2% of total U.S. employment. While that’s a small percentage of American jobs, the openings for STEM jobs are growing more rapidly than for non-STEM jobs.

LakeView students can take classes in computer-aided design, digital electronics, computer-integrated manufacturing, robotics, principles of biomedical science, medical interventions, networking and web design, and programming and database, as well as several others.

The school, which was ranked among U.S. News & World Report’s list of America’s Best High Schools three times, also offers required high school courses, including those in math, history, science and language. Through a partnership with the district’s fine arts charter school, Harborside Academy, LakeView students can be bused there for band, orchestra, choir, art and drama.

LakeView students also can participate in extracurricular activities and Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association sports at their “neighborhood” high schools, such as Bradford and Tremper. After-school programming at LakeView includes bowling, “Super Mileage Vehicle Club” and even sailing.

LakeView was not always a bright and shining gem, according to Hittman.

When it opened in 1997, he says, “the concept was that they would work with businesses and industries in the business park and study manufacturing and industry.”

“It didn’t really work out that way,” he says.

In its first few years, the student body was made up largely of teenagers who weren’t “doing very well academically,” Hittman says.

The school had the lowest Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE) scores among all high schools in Kenosha, Racine and Walworth counties.

During the 1999-2000 school year, Gateway paid for a study that looked at ways to improve LakeView, Hittman says. A curriculum was developed that focused on automated manufacturing systems.

“When I came here in 2002, the school was faltering,” Hittman says. “I was supposed to have 217 kids, but when the fall came, only 161 showed up.

“I looked at the school and the school didn’t function very well, and I suggested to the Board of Education that we close LakeView.”

The acting superintendent at the time said, “ ‘Mr. Hittman, we didn’t hire you to close the school; we hired you to change the school,’ ” Hittman recalls.

Hittman met with Gateway leaders, and they “agreed that the school had to get into the 21st century and had to focus on the needs of business and industry,” he says. “We really focused on engineering and technology.”

Hittman and Gateway revamped the school’s curriculum.

“I told the kids that in three years I wanted LakeView to have the best test results of any school in (Kenosha) County,” Hittman recalls. “We went from the worst to second-best in the school district in one year.”

The year after that, LakeView’s WKCE results were the highest in the district.

“The third year, we beat every school in Kenosha County and in the Gateway attendance area, with the exception of Williams Bay High School in Walworth County. After the fourth year, we beat Williams Bay, and we beat them in every area, not just science.”

The school continued to improve, including partnering with Marquette in a program that allows LakeView students to earn up to 13 credits toward an engineering degree there through Project Lead the Way.

LakeView has been Wisconsin’s Project Lead the Way School of the Year twice.

 “Slowly, but surely,” Hittman says, “people saw that, gee, the kids are doing super academically, almost all of the pre-engineering students go off to college as second-semester freshmen, the kids who are going for an associate’s degree are starting as sophomores.”

The program evolved to the point that going into this school year LakeView had a waiting list of more than 80 students. With close to 450 students this year, the building is overcrowded (its capacity is 365), and leaders are looking to expand.

 “When you’re a junior in this high school, you have marketable skills already,” Hittman says. “You can do 3D CAD (computer-aided design) drawings, you can program software, you can program robots, you can operate CNC (computer numerical control) machines.”

Leaders of area school districts have invited Hittman to share with them the story of LakeView Technology Academy.

It’s the wave of the future, he says.

Betsy Thatcher is a freelance writer in West Bend and a former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter.