John Deere Manufacturing Day

A student practices painting on a simulator at John Deere Ottumwa Works’ first Manufacturing Day. The event let high school and college students into the plant to show them what modern manufacturing looks like.

OTTUMWA — John Deere Ottumwa Works hosted its first Manufacturing Day on Tuesday, giving area high school and college students a look inside the plant.

“We need to make sure we’ve got the workforce in the community who want to be part of our organization,” said Lesley Conning, factory manager at John Deere Ottumwa Works. “So this gives us an opportunity both to share exposure to advanced manufacturing, and also give people an opportunity to see inside the walls of the factory and what we do here.”

Part of that exposure is to change how people see manufacturing jobs.

“We fight the stigma of what [manufacturing] used to be,” Conning said. “Very dirty, hard labor, factory jobs. That might have been somebody’s experience, but it’s so far from what manufacturing is today.”

Amber Pargmann, global program manager at John Deere Ottumwa Works, said this shift is toward newer technologies, like lasers and robotics.

The problem, according to Pargmann, is there is a nation-wide shortage of people with STEM backgrounds.

“When people hear that, they usually just assume engineering, or a four-year degree,” Pargmann said. “But really, our skilled workforce also falls under that. So certifications, two-year degrees, any type of thing like that is also going to have a shortage. In the next 10 years, it’s like 3.4 million jobs are going to be open in manufacturing. So for us, it’s important to reach out to kids and help develop global talent.”

After a brief introductory film and a tour around the factory, students were run through a few different activities. One had students working with LEGOs, while another station had teams of students compete assembling bicycles, which had to pass quality inspections. They were later donated to Sparky Claus.

There were also a few simulations which let students test their skills. One had the students work with a prop paint gun to spray paint on a car door displayed on a screen, while another had them don a virtual-reality welding mask to work on some simulated machine components.

Dakota Duffield, a welder at John Deere Ottumwa Works, oversaw the welding simulation.

“The industry is huge,” he said. “Welders are getting harder and harder to find, so the more we can get this stuff out there, the more the younger kids can try it and love it. We like to take it out to job fairs, we like to take it to the colleges, high schools; it’s just a very good learning tool.”

Many of the students in attendance had some experience with welding already. Zach Lisk, a senior at OHS, has had some experience through school and the SparkTank Bulldog Manufacturing program.

“I’ve never been to John Deere, so I just wanted to get more of a feel for an actual manufacturing job. See what it’s like, see how it runs, and just get an overall feel for how everything operates,” he said. “It’s shown me quite a lot. The simulator is set up for a manufacturing job, so you have to adjust and get trained on how to be a better welder.”

While the day had a strong turnout, with about 45 students in attendance, the organizers said much of the day’s purpose was to change how people saw manufacturing jobs.

“Quite frankly, when people hear ‘manufacturing,’ they think of a dirty, dingy, coal mine-type of atmosphere, and that’s just not the way it is,” said Mark Czerwinski, labor relations manager. “So our focus is really to help perspective students understand that manufacturing is exciting.”

“There are some absolutely fantastic careers, not just jobs, but careers available to individuals who are willing to pursue some additional technical training,” Conning said. “We’ve got several people who have grown from welding jobs or assembly jobs into additional roles.”

Czerwinski is one example. He spent half of his career working on an assembly line before moving into a managerial position.

“The most significant thing I tell new employees walking in the door is that their career can be as rewarding or exciting as they want it to be, and it can go wherever you want it to go,” he said. “Opportunities are pretty limitless.”

John Deere Ottumwa Works hopes to make Manufacturing Day an annual event.

Jack Langland can be reached at jlangland@ottumwacourier.com.

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