PATTERSON -- Ask a group of teenagers about their perception of manufacturing jobs and the likely response you'll get is a shrug of the shoulders.
They know what a fast food or retail job entails because that's where they eat and shop. But few have set foot inside a manufacturing plant and even fewer have considered it a career option.
"Careers in Manufacturing" is a campaign to change that. The pilot program in its fourth year is gaining traction, as evidenced by the more than 250 teenagers and their parents who gathered on a recent weeknight at Patterson High School to watch a two-hour presentation about opportunities in manufacturing.
Through speakers, videos, slide shows and handouts, employers sought to dispel the idea that manufacturing is dirty, low-paying work that doesn't require much education.
"It is rewarding and high-tech," said Jan Ennenga, executive director of the Manufacturing Council of the Central Valley. "You do need an education. You need to be lifelong learner."
Many entry-level jobs in manufacturing start at $14 an hour or higher. There's plenty of room for advancement, employers said, and some companies will offer tuition reimbursement if workers want to pursue a higher education.
"If you are not looking to stay in the valley, not a problem. We have jobs all over the world," said Tina Flores, a Frito-Lay representative.
The Frito-Lay plant in Modesto has seven production lines, including brands such as Sun Chips, Lay's, Doritos, Tostitos and Cheetos. It employs about 700 people with entry-level production jobs that start at about $16 an hour.
The "road show" put on by Careers in Manufacturing isn't a job fair, Ennenga said. Rather, it's an attempt to get teenagers to start thinking about their options before they graduate from high school. The program will hold similar presentations at several other Stanislaus County high schools later this spring.
The Northern San Joaquin Valley has a strong food processing base that attracts manufacturers and related industries. Several food and beverage container manufacturers, such as Plastipak Packaging and Pacific Southwest Container, have plants in Modesto.
With the manufacturing industry's move to computer-controlled automation in recent years, more workers must have mechanical and computer skills. Along with drug screenings and proficiency tests that further thin the field of qualified applicants, many employers are facing a serious shortage of skilled labor.
Jeff Breseman, a human resources representative from E.&J. Gallo Winery in Modesto, said the company held a job fair last year that attracted 2,000 applicants, many of whom waited in the rain for a chance to interview. Only 50 were hired.
"They were unemployable," he said of the pool of applicants.
Patterson High School launched a series of initiatives last year to better prepare students for college or jobs after graduation, including opening a career center, bringing employers to campus and administering a work-skills test called WorkKeys.
The Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance administers WorkKeys, which is a three-part test created by the developers of the American College Test and used in communities throughout the nation. It measures basic workplace skills in reading for information, mathematics and locating information.
During his presentation, Breseman guaranteed a job interview at Gallo to Patterson High School students who graduate with a high school diploma, a score of 4 or higher on the WorkKeys test and a 95 percent presenteeism rate at school.
"No one came to my high school to talk about my future," Breseman said.
Other employers echoed similar advice. Most warned the students to stop dabbling in drugs, because a hair test taken after graduation in June can find traces of drugs dating back as far as six or nine months.
Claudia Moran, 18, stood in line with dozens of her classmates and their parents as they waited to talk to employers during a break in the presentation. Moran said she was surprised to learn that there were "interesting" jobs in manufacturing, contrary to her image of a typical plant worker.
"I want to work while going to Modesto Junior College," Moran said. "Some of these jobs pay you to go to school."
Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 238-4574.
CAREERS IN MANUFACTURING
- WHAT IT IS: A partnership between Modesto City Schools, the Stanislaus Partners in Education, the Manufacturers Council of the Central Valley and the Stanislaus Economic Development and Workforce Alliance.