LIVINGSTON — For several days in January, students at Park High School learned what it takes to make pet toys.

Over the course of the last week, a pair of employees at West Paw Design, a Bozeman-based pet goods company, took over teacher Jamie Isaly’s manufacturing class.

The teaching was part of a larger outreach effort by the Gallatin Valley Manufacturing Partnership, a newly formed coalition of local manufacturers, which hopes to address various industry issues from worker shortages to public perception.

“One of the major goals with this instruction is to build skills critical to manufacturing such as teamwork and problem solving,” said one of the West Paw employees, customer service manager Nikki Dixon-Foley. “Those are the fundamental skills we look for, and if you can teach those skills (in high school), it prepares them to be workforce ready.”

Facilitated in part by Montana State University Extension, the partnership — which includes local companies Blackhawk, Simms Fishing Products, West Paw and Marathon Seat Covers — hopes to tackle the state’s well-chronicled workforce shortage while at the same time expose students to an alternative, often high-paying career path through a series of educational modules.

The group first met last August and drafted the pilot program, wherein employees at West Paw and Blackhawk co-opt classes at Park High and Three Forks High School.

“It’s industry knowledge that the skilled labor shortage is a red flag,” Dixon-Foley said. “We’re finding that we’re having a difficult time finding skilled labor in our area.”

According to data from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, the state will add fewer than half as many workers as jobs over the next few years, with more than 120,000 people set to retire by 2026.

Nearly 20,000 workers in Montana are employed in manufacturing, an industry that accounts for about 22 percent of the state’s GDP, but both Dixon-Foley and West Paw production manager Dan Eslinger said that interest in the industry is lagging. Before they began their instruction, the pair issued a survey to Isaly’s manufacturing class students, which found that many of them view production-style jobs in a negative light.

“We’re hoping to change that vision of manufacturing,” Dixon-Foley said. “We’re losing a lot of interest in skilled labor and our goal with this is to spark that interest and to provide (students) with as many opportunities as possible.”

The Gallatin Valley Partnership, which has also included Gallatin College in its discussions, will have the side effect of keeping high school graduates in Montana and offer many an alternative to a four-year college degree, she added.

“There are a lot of (students) that don’t know what they’re going to do after this. It gives them the idea that you don’t have to go to post-secondary opportunities, but you have to be responsible, show up and have a certain amount of work ethic,” Isaly said.

On Thursday, the lesson concluded with small groups of students presenting their solutions to what Dixon-Foley called a “real life” logistical manufacturing situation. The groups were quick to question one another and didn’t hold back with both Dixon-Foley and Eslinger, peppering them with inquiries about West Paw.

“They’ve responded really well to this,” Isaly said. “They’ve stayed engaged, it was well-received and in the end they are starting to see job potential.”

The program has already attracted interest from schools in Gardiner and Wilsall, and Eslinger said that ideally the partnership will eventually expand statewide.

“Hopefully more people will adopt it and then we can take it to other schools,” he said. “We want people to get and keep jobs that they enjoy.”

The educational component is still a work in progress, however, and after concluding with a field trip to West Paw’s headquarters next week, Dixon-Foley and Eslinger plan to gather feedback from students to present to the partnership.

“It’s an incredible exposure opportunity,” Dixon-Foley said. “We’re hoping that some of this stuff sticks and we can grow it in the future.”

Kendall can be reached at Kendall is on Twitter at @lewdak

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