Whelen Engineering CEO John Olson knows the state of manufacturing in the United States -- after all, he's been in the business for more than five decades.
"The kind of innovation that's going on here is very impressive," said Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire).
The Senator Monday toured the sprawling Charlestown company, which makes lights for emergency responders. "Manufacturing, mining and agriculture actually create dollars. We take something and we make it worth more," Olson said.
Whelen employs 800 workers at the plant, with line workers piecing together parts and robots working on their own. But despite the company's success, Olson says they days of the early to mid 1900's, where manufacturing was king in this country are not what they used to be. "The fact that we off-shored almost all of our manufacturing created the recession, because we were sending all of our money offshore," he said. However, he says it can come back. And to help do that Olson is looking to the next generation.
"Whelen has been a part with us in a number of different educational opportunities. We've done leadership training with them, we will be doing some computer training with them," said Jim Britton with River Valley Community College.
Along with Sen. Shaheen, officials from New Hampshire's community college system were also present. The educators -- part builders and policy makers -- all say a vibrant manufacturing economy starts with a well-educated workforce.
"Getting them at a younger age -- including it as part of the curriculum -- is something that is really important if we are going to attract the workers that we need," Sen. Shaheen said.
A grant from the U.S. Department of Labor is working to accomplish that. "That's known as the TAACCCT grant and it is a $20 million that has come to the community college system. All seven colleges in the community college system in New Hampshire have initiatives to address and support manufacturing education in New Hampshire," Britton said.
After all, Olson said, New Hampshire is a manufacturing economy, even if machines are now doing a big part of the work. "We need people to run the robots and they need to be trained, so we have to start with young people," he said.
Olson said that does not mean high school-aged kids. He wants the focus to begin at the elementary school level. Students growing up in a digital age, who he said will help rebuild the country's building background.
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