By Jewlissa Frickey, writer, The American Mold Builder

The AMBA Tooling Trailblazer of the Year Award was established to recognize the accomplishments of an AMBA member company that have resulted in a notable impact in the area of education. This year, the recipient of the award was Wepco Plastics in Middlefield, Connecticut. 

“Receiving this award reinforces that the work that we’re doing is valuable and necessary,” said Charles Daniels, chief financial officer at Wepco Plastics, Inc. 

In the state of Connecticut, Wepco Plastics has been a strong vocal advocate for workforce development, apprenticeships and exposing children as early as grade school to manufacturing and STEAM-related career paths. Through participation in collaboratives with the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, volunteering on local manufacturing group boards, helping to found pre-apprenticeship programs in local schools or offering STEAM-related activities to children in the state of Connecticut, becoming spokespeople for manufacturing and quality jobs has become a part of Wepco’s daily culture.

“As a member of our community, it is critical that we play a role in ensuring everyone has access to quality education,” said Daniels. “As an employer, it is our responsibility to work with schools and education providers to offer support and feedback. If we don’t focus on the workforce of today and tomorrow, we can’t expect anyone else to.”

In the past year, Wepco Plastics pivoted to manufacture personal protective equipment (PPE) to employ new team members during COVID-19 and meet the State of Connecticut’s urgent need, acquired a new 3D printing value stream and hired an Industry 4.0 engineer. Combined, these instances exemplify how Wepco seeks to meet, and exceed, the needs of its customers and its community. Manufacturing PPE provided a unique way to thrive during the pandemic, while also providing much needed jobs and protection for its local community.

“I’m hopeful that an award like this will help encourage other companies to step up and play a larger role in their areas,” Daniels said. “It reinforces that the work we are doing is valuable and necessary.”

It’s not always as simple as an email, however. For companies that want to become more involved in their community, the first step is calling. 

“The easiest way is to find a school that’s closest to you – more than likely, your employees have family that attends, helping you network from the start,” Daniels said. “The initial phone call may not go far because the schools may not know what they need; that’s our job. It’s not always an easy adventure, but it only takes one school to set the pace for others to follow.”

Taking the step toward educational involvement is beneficial for both the students and manufacturers. “If we as manufacturers sit back and wait for schools to bring us the students we want for the workforce, it doesn’t do us any good,” said Daniels. “By having that involvement, we can develop programs to better fit our needs so students can learn more about what we do and if it’s something they want to pursue.”

Wepco’s involvement in its community school programs varies depending on need. Over the last five to six years, Wepco has made inroads at local schools through advisory boards; tours; career days; providing equipment, materials and curriculums; internships; hiring graduating students and externships with teachers.

One way to ensure students are learning the most relevant and prominent information is by teaching the teachers. With the externships, teachers have an opportunity to work for Wepco and bring the experiences back to the classrooms. “Externships are usually over summer vacation, but Connecticut even managed to have teachers get time off during the school year to spend a day working with us,” said Daniels.

Wepco Plastics encourages all companies that are able to get involved with AMBA. “It provides a wonderful opportunity to network with our peers, access to a variety of resources and an opportunity to have an impact on our industry,” said Daniels. “I really appreciate that AMBA recognizes the importance of this type of work that we’re doing, and it’s one of the reasons we love being a part of it – because they focus on things like this that other trade organizations may not recognize.”