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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Manufactured Future

Evansville area companies seek the next generation of workers for emerging technologies

At its core, Evansville is a blue-collar community and the heart of a blue-collar region.

Tri-State laborers honed this reputation during World War II, assembling freedom-fighting airplanes and ships. Evansville then became nationally known as a refrigerator-making hub from the 1950s until 2009, when Whirlpool shipped its remaining local jobs to Mexico. And since 1998, local workers have put together some of Toyota’s most prized vehicle lines at a massive plant in nearby Princeton, Indiana.

Photo provided by Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana

Today, numerous companies make the Tri-State a capital of the molded plastics industry, including Berry Global, a Fortune 500 member whose worldwide presence includes three facilities in Evansville and two others within an hour’s drive.

There’s more — much more. More than 30,000 area workers punch into work every day to churn out other products that are in demand around the world. Infant nutrition formula, recycled aluminum, ready-to-eat meals for military personnel, many varieties of sporting goods, heavy truck wheels, loaves of bread, commercial tents and canopies, and pharmaceuticals all are made in the Tri-State.

The region’s latest manufacturing addition is Pratt Industries in Henderson, Kentucky, which makes 100 percent recycled paper products. The paper mill and corrugated box factory opened in September and is projected to produce 1,500 metric tons of paper daily while employing around 300 people.

According to data collected by the Evansville Regional Economic Partnership, manufacturing accounts for one in every five jobs in the region, and it contributes about $22 billion in annual gross domestic product. In fact, manufacturing makes up 41 percent of the region’s total economic activity, versus eight percent nationally. Keeping that engine roaring requires a consistent pipeline of new talent. Jobs are there for the taking at several local companies, who covet young people as well as adults who could benefit from a career change.

According to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development, a fourth of the state’s manufacturing workforce is eligible to retire, and 45 percent can do so next year. Eighty-two percent of projected job openings through 2024 will require less than a four-year college degree.

The shared message from Evansville-area companies and educators is this: A four-year degree isn’t always necessary to get a good career off the ground.


Area students start hearing this in high school, or even sooner.

Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation officials encourage a university path for students with a clear-eyed vision of certain careers. But they say other students benefit from exposure to different job opportunities that the Tri-State has in abundance.

Photo by Greg Eans. Carter Dame, left, and Joba Malachi wire a relay logic training board at the Southern Indiana Career & Technical Center. Area students receive valuable job training in advanced manufacturing or other disciplines in a hands-on learning environment.

“If a senior in high school says, I want to be an accountant, or a teacher, or in the medical field, we’re going to make sure they get to the university that can meet their needs,” says Jason Woebkenberg, EVSC’s chief communications officer. “But we don’t want to just push kids to the university who have no idea, just because it’s the end thing to do. We want to create a pipeline for making sure they’re successful, whatever that looks like.”

At the Southern Indiana Career & Technical Center on Lynch Road, students from the EVSC and other local private and public school systems take half-day programs in advanced manufacturing, construction technology, engineering, supply chain and logistics management, metalworking, and more.

Along the way, hard-working students can land on-the-job training opportunities with local industries. Several of the EVSC’s industry relationships are under the umbrella of Opportunities Through Partnerships that Transform and Inspire (OptIN), through which some students can even sign on to work for those companies upon graduation. Through these partnerships, students have opportunities for career growth through advanced certification, training, and even tuition reimbursement for college coursework.

Berry Global is a longtime EVSC partner, and 25 high school juniors are starting a new hands-on program at Berry’s facility near Evansville Regional Airport. This year’s instruction is mostly classroom-based, but as seniors, the students will work on the production floor and earn a wage.

“I signed up for the experience, and I like the hands-on stuff,” says Braxton Holmes, a Central High School junior taking part in the program. “I felt like it would be a good opportunity.”

Photo by Greg Eans. For some students, the experience can lead to internship opportunities or even full-time employment following graduation. The career center partners with companies of all sizes, as well as organized labor groups. Businesses credit school-based partnerships as an important element to maintain a pipeline of skilled workers.

That’s the goal, according to Berry.

“They will get a chance to see what a world-class manufacturing operation looks like, every single day,” says Scott Hartmann, director of human resources for the company’s Evansville operations. “They’re going to have an opportunity to interact with individuals on our team that process the work every day, ask them questions, and learn from the real-life experiences that they have dealt with throughout their career.”

AmeriQual Foods’ partnership with EVSC is similar. The Evansville-based company is the largest provider of ready-to-eat meals to the U.S. military, and it also provides products to large commercial-branded food companies. Locally, AmeriQual employs more than 600 people, with $22 per hour starting salaries and $35 per hour salaries for higher-skilled maintenance roles.

Since 2019, Real-World Application, Maximizing Potential (RAMP) students, who are at least 16, can spend half their school day working on the floor of AmeriQual’s facility on U.S. 41 and the other half in an onsite classroom, completing their school requirements.

“This is something we are very proud of as a company to be a part of, and we want to continue to be the leader and grow it as much as possible,” says Dennis Straub, president of AmeriQual Group.

Toyota Motor Manufacturing Indiana has a current workforce of about 8,200, and the number swells to 10,000 when including local supplier companies. With motor manufacturing being one of the region’s two largest manufacturing subsectors — the other is polymers and plastics — there’s a consistent need for talent, and Toyota is among the Tri-State companies that prioritize school-based partnerships.

TMMI President Leah Curry cites Toyota’s two-year Advanced Manufacturing Technician program for students at Vincennes University in Knox County and the 4T Academy at area high schools, including Evansville’s Benjamin Bosse High School. Through 4T Academy, upperclassmen explore a possible manufacturing career in a hands-on environment, and seniors can receive a paid internship.

Photo by Zach Straw. Aaron Stiles and Ivy Tech Community College HVAC Program Director Don Merle work together in a Heating Fundamentals class.

“These programs couple hands-on learning with on-the-job training and paid internships all while preparing students for a successful and rewarding career,” Curry says.

When the Princeton plant unveiled its new Grand Highlander model in August, the Toyota USA Foundation announced $11.1 million in Driving Possibilities charitable grants to be distributed over five years. A large share of those dollars will be spent on science, technology, engineering, and math programs in schools. About $5.8 million is for Lodge Community School, a K-8 school within the high-poverty Evansville Promise Neighborhood. Lodge also is a Bosse feeder school.

Lodge never has had that type of outside investment, Principal Amy Bonenberger says, and “the things we’re going to be able to do for and with the kids are amazing.”

The entire grant at Lodge isn’t focused on manufacturing endeavors — some of it will fund mental health support, an after-school program with the Boys and Girls Club of Evansville, new classroom equipment, staff to support English language learners, and professional development.

But Lodge students also will experience field trips to Toyota’s Gibson County plant, where they will be able to explore the manufacturing process and learn what options are available outside of a two- or four-year college program.

Photo by Morgan Dean. The Tri-State has an eclectic mix of industries which require a variety of technical skills. Ivy Tech Community College offers programs to train workers in “smart” manufacturing technology, which relies on computer-integrated processes and digital information sharing. Lacy McCallister performs rewiring in the Programmable Logic Controls lab.

Tri-State manufacturers also work with post-secondary education institutions to train and recruit new talent, as Toyota’s partnership with Vincennes University shows.

Another key player in that effort locally and across Indiana is Ivy Tech Community College, which is focused on training next-generation workers in “smart” manufacturing processes that many modern industries are using.

What is smart manufacturing? It means a transition from older, analog processes to the digital age. The emphasis is on computer-integrated skills such as data analysis, cyber security, and more. Officials say human capital still is required, even as factory practices evolve.

As an example, Ivy Tech and SABIC’s innovative plastics plant in Mount Vernon, Indiana, are teaming up on a specific program to train process control technicians. Such technicians monitor many key aspects of a facility’s operation, such as temperature, pressure, and flow, via an interface.

Ivy Tech is “an accelerator of this, big time,” says Daniela Vidal, chancellor of the community college’s Evansville campus, which serves 10 area counties. “We do need people. It might be less people in some cases, but we will need people. … You still need operators, but they need different skills. They’re going to have to operate with a human-machine interface. Instead of mostly using their hands to operate tools they will need to interact with digital devices and interpret data.”


After selling its rolling mill to Kaiser Aluminum in 2021, Alcoa Warrick Operations still owns a power plant and smelting facility near Newburgh, Indiana. Each of its three smelting lines produces 54,000 metric tons of aluminum each year. Alcoa employs about 600 people and has openings for entry-level positions as well as higher-skilled electrical and mechanical technicians, engineering roles, and management responsibilities.

While a high school education is sufficient for operations jobs, it takes higher levels of education to move into other roles. Alcoa, like many other Tri-State companies, offers tuition reimbursement opportunities for team members who show potential for advancement.

“There are plenty of opportunities for progression and to make a successful career out of it,” says Olivier Paradis, human resources manager with Alcoa, whose plant in Warrick County began production in 1960.

Manufacturing accounts for one in every five jobs in the region, making it critical for companies to replace the estimated 45 percent of the state’s manufacturing workforce that is eligible to retire next year. In addition to skills training for high schoolers and young adults, many companies, including Alcoa Warrick Operations in Newburgh, Indiana, invest in tuition assistance for workers seeking career advancement. Photo provided by Alcoa Warrick Operations

At Toyota, no post-secondary education or experience is required for entry-level production jobs. Curry says those hires can expect a robust, three-week classroom orientation, hands-on training, and work conditioning. They are also provided an additional five weeks of shop-specific training.

That’s hardly the end of the line, though. Like Alcoa and other area companies, Toyota gives its workforce opportunities to move up through post-secondary education or other professional development avenues.

Curry cites administrative departments in the company such as engineering, supply chain management, human resources, communications, and accounting. She also notes the movement toward smart manufacturing, which means production workers must keep their skills up to date.

“Increasing technological advancements mean the world of advanced manufacturing is changing at a rapid pace,” Curry says. “It’s energizing to be involved in that and see the skills of our employees evolve and grow.”

Local companies and educators predict manufacturing will continue to be a driving force in the Evansville region’s economy, as it has been since the days of P-47 Thunderbolts and landing ship tanks.

They say opportunities within that sector don’t show signs of drying up anytime soon. And while it’s clear that post-secondary education often isn’t needed to land a job in manufacturing, it’s also important to remember advancement possibilities that manufacturing work provides, says Evansville Regional Economic Partnership CEO Tara Barney.

E-REP in recent years has made attracting and retaining all types of talent a priority, and Barney says local manufacturers have a keen eye for keeping top talent in-house by steering them toward higher roles.

She says keeping college as a future option can pay dividends for workers as well as their companies, which is why many offer tuition assistance.

For high school graduates, Barney says, “The real question is, are you choosing college now, or training now … What our employers aspire to is to have (their workers) change careers within the same employer. That’s a win.”

Banding Together

MANUFACTURING’S IMPORTANCE to the Evansville region and its economy is reflected by the Tri-State Manufacturers’ Alliance, coordinated by E-REP.

Currently chaired by Jake Ward, Anchor Industries’ vice president of manufacturing, the alliance consists of more than 140 businesses and individuals such as Red Wing Shoes, Prime Foods, Evansville Tool & Die, Gribbons Insulation, and Wabash Plastics. The alliance’s goals, according to E-REP, are “to create a vibrant and attractive manufacturing environment in Southwest Indiana that results in improved revenue and profitability and an increase in manufacturing sector jobs.”

There are quarterly events, plant tours, peer group discussions, and networking opportunities.

For more information about the alliance, contact Tyler Stock with E-REP at tstock@evvregion.com.

Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti joined Tucker Publishing Group in September 2022 as a staff writer. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2020 with a bachelors degree in English. A Connecticut native, Maggie has ridden horses for 15 years and has hunt seat competition experience on the East Coast.

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