Shop Rats of the Future

shop rats

Attracting the next generation through exposure, exploration and preparation.

When you ask most middle school students what future career they have in mind, you are more likely to be met with responses such as professional athlete, nurse, teacher, or marine biologist than CNC machinist, toolmaker, welder or engineer. It isn’t necessarily that students are opposed to these career paths. For most, they do not know these opportunities even exist. Through focused programing intended to provide greater opportunities to youth for exposure to, exploration and preparation of manufacturing careers, the Shop Rat Foundation is making strides toward change.

Perception Change

Chris Salow, a Michigan based manufacturing entrepreneur, began the Shop Rat Foundation in 2004, his mission was simple: to change society’s perception of manufacturing.

shop ratsWhat he came to realize through his marketing efforts and community outreach activities was that although the adult viewpoint was harder to shift, the youth that he encountered were much more receptive. In 2006, as he began opening his shop on Saturday mornings to local youth, he discovered that most had never even touched a hand tool and had no idea what manufacturing involves. Through this experience, Chris’ mission and focus changed and the Shop Rat Education Program was born.

Over the past 10 years, nearly 5,000 Mid-Michigan youth have participated in hands-on, project-based activities focused on manufacturing at summer camps and after-school classes provided through the Shop Rat Foundation and the Shop Rat Education Program.

The Shop Rat Foundation recognizes that the first step in preparing tomorrow’s manufacturing workforce lies in creating a greater awareness among today’s youth and their families about advanced manufacturing through exposure programs. In Jackson, Michigan, where the foundation is based, collaboration has been the key to success in promoting understanding within the community regarding not only the need for a highly skilled workforce but also the nature of advanced manufacturing.

Coordinated Efforts

Through a team effort by local manufacturers, educational entities and nonprofit organizations, the opportunities for families to connect with manufacturing continue to grow at rapid rate. With resources such as the Jackson Area Career Center, JAC3 Early Middle College and the community’s Cradle 2 Career initiative, to name a few, exposure activities are a regular occurrence within the Jackson community. These activities include manufacturing week open house events, a pipeline exploration event at the Jackson Area Career Center, highlighting manufacturing focused educational programs available for kindergarten through post-secondary learning.

By marketing these activities as family events, it encourages not just an awareness 12243164_1676637785893642_7700537729086539337_nregarding the nature of today’s manufacturing careers and the steps necessary to pursue these careers but also contributes to shifting the perception of these careers. By showcasing the valuable contributions that manufacturing provides to society and the highly technical nature, of today’s manufacturing, students are less likely to meet resistance if they express interest in pursuing these careers.

When it comes to encouraging students to take the time to learn about manufacturing careers and begin preparing for them, the Shop Rat Foundation has discovered that a little fun goes a long way. All exploratory and preparatory programs offered through the Shop Rat Foundation’s Shop Rat Education Program are hands-on and project-based, allowing students to become involved on a deeper level.

Diverse Programs

Exploratory programming offered by the Shop Rat Foundation includes programs such as a CO2 Dragster Engineering Program for sixth grade students, that bring the Shop Rat staff right into the students’ math and science classes for a week-long adventure exploring engineering. With each student creating their own dragster, they have an opportunity to become personally invested in the project and make meaningful connections to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) concepts introduced. This project, along with a seventh grade unit focused on electrical circuitry are in-school, exploratory program options that allow a greater number of students to participate.

IMG_3908The Shop Rat Foundation makes sure that these opportunities for exploration extend beyond the school day as well, with spring break and summer camps. A program launched in summer 2014 is an all-female manufacturing focused summer camp for middle school students called Project Rosie. Within Project Rosie, participating students circulate through machining, welding and engineering projects and work with female industry mentors to make a connection to manufacturing careers and gain confidence to pursue STEM and manufacturing opportunities presented to them.

In addition to Project Rosie, the Shop Rat Foundation offers a Tinker camp, focused on innovation. Through Tinker camp, students explore the difference between invention, innovation and discovery and work collaboratively through a week-long session on a challenge to create their own innovation.

By providing students and their families numerous touch points to not only learn about the opportunities available within the manufacturing sector, but also get excited about them, getting those students involved in the community’s preparatory programs is a much less daunting task. The Shop Rat Foundation is fortunate to have many incredible partners in the Jackson community providing a full spectrum of preparatory programs for students beginning in grade six and extending to post-secondary levels.

Introductory, developing and advanced level, after-school classes and camps are offered for students enrolled in grades six through twelve. These programs are designed to develop among students an applicable skill set related to machining, welding, engineering, additive manufacturing and mechatronics. Students enrolled within these programs participate in career spotlight activities, skill development centers incorporating CAD and CAM experience and engagement with industry mentors.  These programs are designed to align with Michigan Career and Technical Education standards and programs offered through the Jackson Area Career Center’s manufacturing cluster.

Inspiring the Future

The coordinated efforts of the Shop Rat Foundation and its community partners allow students and their families the opportunity to gain exposure to advanced manufacturing and explore different facets of the industry through exciting and unique offerings. Students acquire applicable skills and connect with local manufacturers through preparatory programs. Enrollment within all offered programming continues to grow annually.

With this growth, and the diverse spectrum of offerings, more of those middle school students are identifying machinist, mechanical engineer or welder as a future career option. The presence of a prepared, skilled future workforce, for the Jackson, Michigan community is an absolute possibility.

For more information on the Shop Rat Foundation, please visit