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Website will link manufacturers, schools

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By Rachel Abbey McCafferty

A new website will connect manufacturers and Lake and Geauga county schools, helping students learn about the opportunities available in the industry and companies prepare the next generation of workers.

NextWork, which was started under the direction of the Wickliffe City School District, is just one of many programs working to close the skills gap in manufacturing. The approach NextWork is taking is a collaborative one that allows companies and schools to get involved at whatever level works best for them.

NextWork grew out of Wickliffe City School District's workforce and career development program, which helps students in fourth through 12th grades connect with resources ranging from classroom speakers to job fairs to shadowing and internship opportunities. The idea is to get them to think about what comes after high school, said superintendent Joe Spiccia.

About two years ago, the district posted a thank you to a local company on social media for hosting a worksite visit, Spiccia said. That employer then started getting calls from other local districts seeking similar opportunities. Spiccia said it wanted to help but wasn't able to handle all the requests.

Wickliffe's leadership saw an opportunity.

The district reached out to the Alliance for Working Together Foundation, with which it already had a strong relationship, and began discussing ways to create a centralized process for scheduling activities like site visits, Spiccia said. But this process wouldn't just be for the Wickliffe schools; it extends to all districts in Lake and Geauga counties. Collaboration is important, Spiccia said.

"We think it's the way the world should work," he said.

Right now, those kinds of connections happen more informally, but NextWork could create one cohesive system for the schools and companies in the region, said AWT Foundation executive director Alice Cable.

The group behind NextWork brought in other partners, like the Geauga Growth Partnership Inc., Magnet and Lakeland Community College, and began seeking funding. Spiccia said what's now known as NextWork received $55,000 from the Cleveland Foundation to get the website off the ground and $200,000 — $100,000 this fiscal year and $100,000 the next — that was included in the state budget. The site will be free to browse, Spiccia said, but companies that want to add events and job opportunities will be charged $300 per year. The Lake County Educational Service Center is serving as the fiscal agent for NextWork, and Spiccia said the group is in the process of putting together a governing board to oversee NextWork's growth.

Julie Ramos, director of strategic innovation at the Wickliffe City School District, said businesses will be able to put as much or as little on their profiles as they want. That way, schools will be able to go online and immediately see which companies are willing to provide speakers, or which ones are open to site visits. And companies will be able to offer these options without having to field countless calls, she said.

There are a lot of students — and people in education, generally — who don't know all that goes on in a modern manufacturing plant, said Scott Seaholm, chairman and CEO of Universal Metal Products Inc. There's the shop floor, sure, but companies also need employees in areas like human resources, sales and marketing.

The NextWork program is a way to get the word out and bring more people into manufacturing, Seaholm said. The Wickliffe-based metalforming company has been involved in putting it together. NextWork will give the schools and the companies a dedicated way to communicate. Seaholm said it also will serve as a way for companies to better spread out opportunities and to plan for when they will be hosting events.

Roger Sustar, CEO of Mentor-based precision machining shop Fredon Corp., isn't the biggest fan of technology, but he knows manufacturers have to do a better job of embracing it if they don't want to become obsolete. The students are the future, he said, and he thinks NextWork could help parents and students see what factories are all about.

Though the participating districts are in Lake and Geauga counties, there is no geographic restriction for companies that want to take part. Spiccia said the group wants to make sure students have as many options as possible, even if those options are in other counties.

"If we keep the talent at home, the economic prosperity grows," Spiccia said.

On the academic side, participating students will have a digital portfolio of all of their experiences through the program, Ramos said.

While NextWork is beginning with a focus on manufacturing, where it knows there is a high demand, there are plans to expand it to other industries like health care and information technology, Spiccia said. And Ramos said other districts already have expressed interest in learning about the model.

The official launch of the NextWork website will be Dec. 7. It will be marked with a celebration at the Auburn Career Center.

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