A handful of years ago, economic development and business leaders were discussing the growth of the local manufacturing and tech sectors but lamenting that many people weren’t aware of the opportunities those companies presented or even familiar with the firms at all.
Moreover, representatives from tech and manufacturing firms had expressed their desire to connect more directly to local schools, according to Chris Parson, who at the time was the director of Flathead Valley Community College’s center for manufacturing advancement. The schools, which are nurturing the future generations of the workforce, were equally eager for that relationship.
“The challenge is always finding opportunities for educators and students to learn what’s going on in the community manufacturing wise, especially with advanced manufacturing and technology,” Parson said.
There needed to be a facilitation mechanism to “fill those gaps.”
One such tool that arose from the discussions was the Manufacturing and Technology Expo, which joined forces with the existing Kalispell Mini Maker Faire, hosted by FVCC and ImagineIF Libraries. The result was a vibrant two-day showcase of creativity, experiential learning, problem-solving, collaboration and entrepreneurship, as well as a forum for face-to-face employer and student interaction.
In short, it introduced the emerging workforce to innovative ideas, the individuals and companies turning those ideas into cutting-edge realities, a highly practical and modern set of skills, and a world of possibilities that existed right in their backyard.
“Much of what manufacturers or tech companies make gets sold outside of the area,” said Kim Morisaki, director of business development and marketing for Montana West Economic Development. “People didn’t realize it was getting made here.”
“We wanted to help people understand — particularly students, but teachers and parents as well — that there are all these things that are made here and you can have a good career making things here,” she continued. “Those students are the emerging workforce.”
For the last three years, the Manufacturing and Technology Expo and Kalispell Mini Maker Faire have combined for a two-day event called Making Montana, free and open to the public. This year, the makers’ portion is no longer licensed through the global Maker Faire event, but the essential offerings and philosophies remain unchanged, only without the branded name.
Making Montana will be held at the Flathead County Fairgrounds on Feb. 28-29 and hosted by ImagineIF, MWED, FVCC, Job Service Kalispell and Kalispell Public Schools. Other sponsors include the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, Weyerhaeuser, LC Staffing, Parkside Credit Union, Big Sky Public Relations and Applied Materials Foundation.
The event draws well over 2,000 students and members of the public annually, including more than 1,200 elementary through high school students registered this year. Making Montana has been honored with the national Silver Excellence in Economic Development Award from the International Economic Development Council.
The 54 exhibitors, as of last week, signed up this year once again represent a widely diverse range of tech and manufacturing companies and makers, from weaving and welding to robotics and semiconductors. Organizers say the “interactive exhibits and informative presentations” will feature a variety of “tech enthusiasts, manufacturers, engineers, do-it-yourselfers, artists, crafters and scientists.”
The makers, manufacturers and tech companies will showcase their finished products and offer hands-on activities “designed to spark curiosity and engage area students” on the first day, Feb. 28, from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. The free event opens to the public on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
There will be live “breakout sessions” featuring demonstrations, including a presentation from Justin Meccia to encourage entrepreneurship among youth, robot battles from the Glacier High School Technology Student Association and a Code Girls United “Minnow Tank” competition.
Megan Glidden, of ImagineIF Libraries and one of the event’s primary organizers, said the library is also hosting a soldering station. Flathead Industries will bring in old electronics to disassemble and then rebuild, employing soldering. Other highlights include a demonstration by the RoboScout Squad and a S.T.E.M. challenge.
Glidden said Making Montana embodies the ImagineIF Libraries’ core strategic pillars, including education, connection and economic development.
“Making those connections to people and making the information more accessible is part of what we do,” she said.
Glidden said despite the far-ranging differences among the makers and companies — from spinning wool to building robots — they are brought together by their need for and employment of “21st century skills: collaboration, communication, creativity, problem-solving.”
“I think that’s what unites the makers and manufacturers and everyone,” she said. “There are lots of different ways to put those skills to use and to cultivate those skills, and those are the skills that are becoming more and more important in the workforce.”
Laura Gardner of Job Service Kalispell said employers, especially in manufacturing, struggle to find workers with the appropriate skills. She said the job service partners with Making Montana in part to address that disconnect, and she says she likes that the expo shows students first-hand that modern manufacturing is often more vibrant and cutting-edge than they might imagine.
“We like to do anything we can to help employers with the next-generation workforce,” Gardner said. “We’re wanting to inspire young minds to be part of tomorrow’s skilled workforce and help create a long-term workforce solution.”
For more information, visit www.makingmontana.org.