Geater done: Independence manufacturer reaches out to schools to build a great workforce

INDEPENDENCE, Iowa — Tired of wading in a relatively shallow labor pool, an Independence company started an innovative initiative to get young people excited about careers in manufacturing.

Geater Machining and Manufacturing Co. of Independence, which builds precision parts for the aerospace, electronic and high-tech industries, is reaching out to area middle and high school students. The goal is to create a deep, readily available local workforce.

The School Outreach Initiative, which began this summer, is already paying dividends. Geater officials hope it will ensure the longtime success of the company and community.

Starmont High School junior Larry Hunt hadn’t considered a career in manufacturing until he toured the Geater plant in the fall as part of the outreach program. The 16-year-old thought being a machinist would be dirty, hard, monotonous, low-paying work.

That changed while walking through the state-of-the-art plant filled with high-tech machines. He watched fabrication experts make radio and other component boxes out of aluminum with computer numerically controlled machines in a relatively clean, climate-controlled environment.

Hunt also learned a trained CNC operator, after getting a two-year associate degree, can earn about $50,000 a year to start.

“It was such a different perspective. That was pretty cool bringing us in,” Hunt said.

After football season, Hunt started working at Geater part time smoothing out parts. He plans to get a CNC degree, possibly starting the process while still in high school, and work at Geater full time.

Stacy Halverson, human resources manager at Geater, couldn’t be more pleased with the way the initiative is working. Participating school districts currently include Independence, Starmont, Oelwein, North Fayette, West Central of Delaware and Jesup. The Buchanan County Success Center, a local alternative high school, is also involved. The company will continue to encourage others in the area to join.

The company provides plant tours and fabrication experts to teach students about manufacturing, fixes equipment in school shop classes and will help buy equipment or get classes up and running.

Students interested in getting a CNC degree can qualify for tuition reimbursement from Geater if they work for the company.

Halverson said the initiative was born after a manufacturing conference at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo a year ago. Experts at the conference said the Cedar Valley was short 100 to 200 skilled machinists and the school was only turning out 25 a year. The shortage is expected to double in the near future, Halverson said.

“We can’t compete with John Deere and GMT (in Waverly). Our goal is to refocus recruiting efforts of where to get people,” Halverson said. “(Potential workers) don’t want to commute here. … We need to grow our own.”

CNC operators aren’t the only focus, Halverson said. She tells students manufacturing is more than just working with metal. Computer programers, information technology experts, bookkeepers and managers are needed, among other jobs.

Geater currently employs 195 full- and part-time workers. The company celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Some of Geater’s best customers include Rockwell Collins, Chrystal Group and General Dynamics.

Geater is growing. Just before Christmas, the company started using a 27,000-square-foot addition, more than doubling the size of the plant.

“We’re pushing to get our name out in the area and show kids they can get a quality job in Buchanan County,” Halverson said.

Matt O’Laughlin, superintendent at Starmont Schools, said the partnership with Geater provides an opportunity for students who don’t want to attend a traditional four-year college to glimpse what a career in manufacturing could entail.

In an area dominated by agriculture and small towns, O’Laughlin said good-paying jobs can be hard to find. Opportunities exist at Geater and other manufacturing plants to stay in Northeast Iowa and live well, he said.

“It’s our job to prepare all students for the future, whether it’s post-secondary education, the military or to go right in the workforce,” O’Laughlin said.

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