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There’s good reason that the new Industrial Technology space at Waconia High School resembles an actual plant floor at a manufacturing facility.

“This is more than I expected,” Phyllis Roth, human resources vice president, cabinet division, Elkay Manufacturing, said. “This is going to be a great opportunity for kids.”

Roth was reacting to her first look at the equipment that Elkay donated to Waconia Schools. Elkay had changed over a manufacturing plant in another part of the country to become a distribution center. The company approached Waconia High School, looking to donate the woodworking manufacturing equipment.

“We said, if you want it, it’s yours,” Roth explained. “As we heard about the new school being built, we said we have to do something to be part of that. We saw the old area, and we knew they needed new equipment. Especially with our plant here in Waconia, there’s no excuse for us not to have this relationship with the school.”

Elkay coordinated the transfer of the equipment, paid for the shipping and also had their engineers help with installation. All told, the donation amounted to tens of thousands of dollars.

Considering that it has become increasingly challenging for Elkay to find enough employees, the company views this as a big step in the right direction to do what Roth calls “grow our own.”

“Our experience has been that people are not out there waiting for a job, knocking on our door like it used to be. So, we have to be proactive and show people that there are great jobs in manufacturing. We have to do our part to educate and train them so they know we exist. Plus, the variety of skills that students are learning in class related to safety, quality, working with others and craftsmanship are essential skills needed in our workforce.”

Dave Aeling, WHS industrial tech teacher, added, “Our capabilities just really expanded with what Elkay donated. The speed by which we will be able to move projects through will be much, much quicker.”

Waconia Public Schools has developed relationships with several local businesses to allow students to explore their interests.

“We have a manufacturing council here in Waconia, and we all see this as a dire need because manufacturing has not been seen as a place where kids want to go work. We are working on changing that,” Roth added. 

The relationship with Elkay is continually developing. Aeling and another teacher, Peter Brown, spent a week this past summer working on the plant floor at Elkay.

“Things are always changing and we need to stay relevant in the classroom. That time at Elkay helped us further understand what the industry needs from us at school,” Aeling said. “One of the greatest parts of all of what we’re doing here is that kids are actually seeing that there is opportunity for them right here in Waconia.”

Looking ahead, Elkay is interested in developing an apprenticeship program at Waconia High School.

“They can come over, work in our plant, get credit hours, and still be going to school. Then they can come over in the summers or whenever they want to work. It can be part time or full time,” Roth explained. “People think of manufacturing as this old dark place, and that’s not manufacturing today. We have not done our job to explain that to parents and to kids. This is part of that, getting us ready to have our future employees come out of the local schools.”

Pictured (left to right): Sandy Armstrong, Phyllis Roth, Rick Singerhouse

(They are all in Elkay Manufacturing management.)