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Path to middle class jobs: New manufacturing center is a combination classroom, museum

A student and teacher use a spot welder at the headquarters of the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET) in Cleveland.
Patrick O’Donnell
The 74
MAGNET instructor and lesson designer Jennie Becker teaches a student how to use a spot welder in a tour of Cleveland’s new Manufacturing Innovation, Technology and Job Center.

Jennie Becker snips a strip of aluminum and winds it around a metal mold while students from Cleveland’s Garrett Morgan High School watch.

“I need some volunteers,” says Becker, an instructor for the new Manufacturing Innovation, Technology and Job Center, a $17 million business incubation lab and student teaching center opened last week to support local industry and show students skills and jobs that might lead them to a career.

Becker points to six students and has them gather around a table where they each pull a lever to press the strip against the mold. One by one, they bend the strip into the shape of Ohio to create a cookie cutter.

“This is an example of metal bending which is a process in manufacturing and we can make as many as we want,” she tells the students. “You can take them home.”

The lesson Friday morning was the first for the new center that’s part factory, part museum and part classroom — and already drawing national attention. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen attended its grand opening Thursday night, praising its potential to boost the city and nation’s manufacturing economy as it helps students.

With debt handcuffing many graduates and making college out of reach for others, career technical education programs across the country like the Cleveland center are stepping in to help students earn skills for middle-class jobs without piling up massive financial obligations.

For students from the nation’s poorest school district, Cleveland education officials say the center is part of a plan to set kids on a path toward well-paying careers after graduating from high school.

“It's… exposing thousands of students to the good paying manufacturing jobs that our economy has created,” Yellen said. “They'll learn that this is exciting technology, and a wonderful source of jobs in the future,” she told The 74.

Signs next to equipment in the center list potential manufacturing jobs and their hourly pay - $17-25 for brake press operators, $32-45 for mechanical technicians or $40-$60 for industrial engineers.

MAGNET CEO Ethan Karp in a red construction cap stands beside a Bobcat machine with construction supplies behind him.
Patrick O'Donnell
The 74
MAGNET CEO Ethan Karp shows how an old Cleveland elementary school is converted into a business incubator and demonstration center on this April tour of the site.

Housed in a long-shuttered elementary school built in the 1960s, the center is the new headquarters of a local manufacturing association, the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET). About a third of it is set aside as a teaching hall for manufacturing demonstrations and museum-style exhibits on processes like laser cutting, vacuum forming and metal stamping created in partnership with the Great Lakes Science Center.

The Cleveland school district, which sold the former Margaret Ireland Elementary School to MAGNET two years ago, leases five classrooms in the center and plans to send 3,000 6th and ninth graders through the site each year on field trips to see demonstrations and exhibits.

Autumn Russell, who heads a consortium to help kids in the Cleveland area find jobs after graduation, hopes the center will “break students’ misconceptions” about manufacturing.

“Students can see what 21st century manufacturing looks like and be introduced to well paying careers that are right in their backyard,” she said.

Cleveland students at MAGNET try out suction lift equipment.
Patrick O'Donnell
The 74
Cleveland school district students try out suction lift equipment on a tour of the new manufacturing center.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown also lauded the center for using a former school in the low-income Hough neighborhood to reach students in a high poverty school district.

“I love it where you're located,” Brown said. “I love it that this was a grade school. I love what this symbolizes. I love it that… hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of mostly Cleveland public school kids, but other public school kids too, will come through here and they will get to operate equipment and machinery. And they will understand there are all kinds of roads to the middle class.”

For MAGNET, the site replaces a smaller, crowded home that limited what it could do for students and for businesses that need help starting or expanding. Leah Epstein, MAGNET’s vice president of engagement, said manufacturers in the region need more than 10,000 employees right away. Though MAGNET already sponsors some training programs, including its Early College, Early Careers apprentice program for high school juniors, she said sparking interest in more students at earlier ages is important.

“As baby boomers retire, we expect that number is only going to increase two or three fold in the next 10 years,” she said. “If we don't do something now, we're going to be in a bad spot.”

Though the National Museum of Industrial History teaches some similar classes in Bethlehem, PA, and many factories offer tours to the public or school groups, Epstein said MAGNET could not find another site offering the degree of lessons the center will. And factories, she said, specialize in certain tasks, not many, and can’t shut down production lines for hands-on student visits every day.

The plan calls for Cleveland schools to bring 6th graders to the center for short visits as add-ons to their yearly field trips to the science museum. Ninth graders will come for a half day each year, then more for students with extra interest.

In addition, a STEM-themed playground outside is open to the public. With a mural of six Black innovators looking over the site, the games and climbing equipment all offer lessons. A giant fulcrum with dangling ropes traces about leverage as students try to lift a basket of bowling balls. A “geo-climber” with many metal panels asks students how many corners or triangles are in the structure. And a seesaw has sliding weights to let students explore balance between the sides.

Cleveland’s new manufacturing center has a STEM-themed playground open to the public and a mural featuring Black innovators.
Patrick O'Donnell
The 74
Cleveland’s new manufacturing center has a STEM-themed playground open to the public and a mural featuring Black innovators.

Student Don Joyce didn’t want to visit the center, but was persuaded by a teacher who told him to be open to learning new things.

“I ended up going and I liked it,” he said. He is now considering the technical side of business.

“It’s interesting,” he said, then added with a smile, “It makes a lot of money.”

Patrick O’Donnell is a correspondent at The 74, covering the impact of the pandemic on America’s education system. Prior to The 74, Patrick had a prolific, 27-year stint as a reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, nine years of which were spent covering the Cleveland Municipal School District and an array of state education issues.

The 74 is a nonprofit, non-partisan news site covering education in America. For more stories like this, visit the74million.org.