Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita is participating for the first time in a summer youth employment initiative that it hopes will spur interest among area high school students in manufacturing careers – and eventually lead them to come work for the city’s largest employer.
Spirit hired about 20 students from Wichita and area high schools to participate in what it internally calls the Summer High School Manufacturing Program.
It’s connected to the larger Youth Employment Project led by the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas, an initiative to encourage area companies to hire high school and college students for summer jobs.
But Spirit’s participation extends beyond altruism. The supplier to Boeing, Airbus and other aircraft manufacturers has a fair bit of annual job turnover.
And Spirit officials see its participation in summer youth employment as a means to raise the interest of high school students to consider manufacturing work as a career.
Samantha Meeds, senior manager of Spirit’s global talent acquisition, pointed to a 2017 survey by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute on public opinions about the manufacturing industry. The survey said one-third of Americans would not encourage their children to pursue a manufacturing career because they don’t think the industry offers job security and stability, or good pay.
But the reality is Spirit annually needs to fill hundreds of jobs that are vacated through attrition or retirement, Meeds said.
“I need to replace 120 (assembly mechanics) every year,” she said. “… We’re trying to find ways to counter that.”
It’s a program that Spirit CEO Tom Gentile has taken a personal interest in, meeting with the students during their orientation and before they finished the program to hear about their experiences.
“He is that engaged,” Meeds said.
Spirit officials said the company’s interest in offering summer jobs for students came from Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell, who was asking more local companies to engage in the Workforce Alliance’s Youth Employment Project.
This year, the project placed 211 students ages 16 to 24 in summer jobs with 90 employers in the alliance’s six-county region — Butler, Cowley, Harper, Kingman, Sedgwick and Sumner — said Angie Duntz, communications manager for the alliance.
Students hired for the program at Spirit were exposed to four areas: sheet metal, composites, machining, and tools and processes. Those are “critical skills areas that we need,” Meeds said.
Spirit divided its student workers, who started in early June, into two groups: 16-17 year olds and 18-19 year olds.
The younger group, who were paid $9 an hour, worked for four hours a day, five days a week for three weeks. Their “work” was mostly training and education, Meeds said, because of their younger age.
The older group, however, got “hands-on experience” working with mentors, she said, adding they are “never allowed to go out and work on their own.”
The older group worked an identical daily schedule but for a total of six weeks, she said. They also were paid $10 an hour.
“I love this — every bit of it,” said Jeffrey Parker, 19, a 2017 graduate of Douglas High School who was finishing up his last week at Spirit this week.
“I like working with heavy machinery, and I love working with metal,” Parker added.
Parker said his six weeks at Spirit has convinced him to take some general education classes at Cowley College and eventually attend Wichita Area Technical College to become a machinist or airframe and power plant technician.
“You get to actually see the environment you’ll be working in and figure out if this is for you or not,” he said. Parker added he already is encouraging some of his younger friends attending Douglass High School to sign up for Spirit’s program next year.
“It’s a great opportunity,” he said.
Spirit workers assigned to him as mentors as he transitioned to different areas of the plant were helpful.
“They’ve all helped me out a lot,” Parker said. “Even if I mess up, they tell me, ‘OK, figure out what you did wrong and fix it.’ ”
Meeds said some of the older students could be invited to work at Spirit when they wrap up their summer jobs this week.
“There is a potential for some of those 18 and 19 year olds to get an offer,” she said.
Meeds said Spirit will “absolutely” repeat the program next year.
The company has had a “very positive response from students,” she added, and hopes they will go back to their schools this fall and communicate that to their peers.
In the meantime, she said Spirit will take the information gleaned from this year’s program as well as feedback from the student mentors to decide what changes might need to be made.
“We’ll probably step back and say, ‘How big do we get this?’ ” Meeds said.