As National Manufacturing Day was marked by companies and colleges across the country Friday, Alcoa Davenport Works opened its doors to promote the industry as well as the aluminum maker's own opportunities.

The Riverdale plant hosted dozens of high school students, college students and business and community representatives during three separate sessions that put the spotlight on Alcoa's workforce, products and its environmental responsibility.

Rob Woodall, Davenport Works' manufacturing director, said that nationwide, more than 600,000 manufacturing jobs are unfilled because the needs of the manufacturing industry are not matching the skills available in today's workers. 

With more than a dozen high school students at the morning session, he offered these statistics: 69 percent of the research and development spent in the country is related to manufacturing and 90 percent of U.S. patents come from manufacturing companies. These jobs typically pay 20 percent higher salaries, he added.

"Unfortunately, only 20 percent of parents in a national survey said they would encourage their children to go into manufacturing,'' he said. That is why the Alcoa Foundation is spending $4.5 million globally on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, initiatives to encourage students to consider careers in STEM.

Jim Spelhaug, Pleasant Valley School District's superintendent, who attended the event, said education has seen a shift toward readying more of its students for college than the trades. At one time, Pleasant Valley employed six industrial arts instructors. Today, there are three.

He believes the 1980s farm crisis — and the loss in manufacturing jobs locally back then — has the older generation swaying their children away from the plants. "People don't recognize how different manufacturing jobs are today than they were 30 years ago," he said.

Alcoa combined its Manufacturing Day with its annual Environmental Briefing "to get the word out that manufacturing jobs are not the dirty old jobs they used to be," Woodall said,

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The event was eye-opening Davenport Kimberly Center students Payton Engels, 18, and Jordan Miller, 17. Both high school students were unaware of Alcoa's emphasis on environmental stewardship. "I didn't know they how they try to improve their impact on the environment," Engels said. "That means a lot."

Miller, who already is interested in mechanics, said the visit "was a good opportunity to see (his career choice) in action in a plant."

With Alcoa's $300 million expansion nearly complete, Woodall said hiring is continuing for the 150 jobs that will be created by Alcoa's expansion of its products for the automotive industry. 

"We still feel (the shortage) in our crafts here, especially with general mechanics and electricians," he said, adding that the company looks as far as Chicago and Detroit to fill some openings.