Young people from across Callaway County had the opportunity Friday to explore three local businesses.
Danuser Machine Company, AZZ/Central Electric Manufacturing and Backer's Potato Chips allowed about 75 students to tour their facilities as part of National Manufacturing Day. Each high school in Callaway County sent 15 students on the tour. Members of Youth 180, a youth workforce development program at the Missouri Job Center, also participated.
Organized by the Callaway Chamber of Commerce, the event aims to develop the county's workforce by inspiring future skilled workers to find jobs within the county.
"This event is a win-win for the participating students and manufacturers," Chamber Executive Director Tamara Tateosian said. "The students get their first exposure to the quality jobs offered right here in Callaway County, while the manufacturers get to showcase their jobs to students who could be part of their future work forces."
On a national level, more than 250,000 students participate in Manufacturing Day activities.
By the end of the day, some youths were already requesting applications.
"I'm ready to put on gloves and grab a screwdriver," said Bradley Carter, a participant in Youth 180.
After a brief introduction from owner Vicky Backer McDaniel, students donned hairnets, scrubbed their hands and headed out onto the floor.
Potatoes arrive at the facility still covered in dirt, and head out the other side sliced thin, crisped golden and neatly packaged. In between, they pass through a series of elaborate machines and quality control checks. And it happens fast.
"On a perfect day, with perfect potatoes, we can produce up to 7,000 pounds of chips a minute," McDaniel said.
Eric Milius, sales manager for Backer's, guided one group through the entire process, highlighting potential jobs along the way.
Before anything else can happen, the arriving potatoes take a bath. From there, they're slurped up tubes and deposited in a mechanical cleaner and peeler. (Peels and other scraps go to a local farmer to be used as cattle feed.) They're spat out before the watchful eyes of potato inspectors, who chop off discolored pieces and discard any unusable potatoes.
Then, the potatoes are thinly sliced by rapidly-whirling blades. Because the entire fryer must be shut down to switch the blades, the factory alternates which cuts of chips it produces on a given day.
"Come back next Tuesday, and we'll be running wavy potato chips all day," Milius said.
The potatoes enter the fryer next, where they sizzle away at 370 degrees. Milius explained potatoes are 80 percent water, and that water gets replaced by oil in the fryer. The company goes through more than 12,000 gallons of oil per week, he said.
Emerging as chips, the potatoes are dusted with salt and picked over one more time for defects. They're then conveyed to the 12 packaging lines. At the top of each, the seasoning is sprinkled onto the chips.
In a carefully choreographed dance, the roll of potato chip bag material enters a collar, which seals it into a tube. After a bag gets heat-sealed at the bottom, a portion of chips drops in, and the bag is sealed off at the top and sliced free.
Then it's ready for boxing and loading.
"It reminds me of that show, 'How It's Made,'" New Bloomfield High School junior Wil Stele said.
The students also got to meet Quality Control Manager Michele Brooks. Each hour, she has to intercept several bags of plain chips and check their weight, salt, oil and moisture content.
"I worked 16 years in HVAC, then I came here and I love it," she said.
The manufacturing process at AZZ isn't quite so straightforward.
There are two reasons for this. For one, AZZ manufacturers switchgears — think the breaker box in your house, but scaled up large enough for a whole city or industrial factory. They're a bit more complicated than a potato chip.
For another, each switchgear is unique.
"They're all custom work," General Manager Nathan Lepper said.
Each is tailored to the job it will do, and either designed by in-house engineers or built to specs provided by the customer. Some are the size of a building.
Building a switchgear takes many hands, and it all happens just south of Fulton. The AZZ facility contains an office, an engineering department, a fabrication department, and one for assembling and wiring the switchgears.
"Here, we have two factories under one roof," Lepper said. "That's another thing that makes this facility nice — it's all right here."
AZZ manufacturing manager Richard Bode took a group of Youth 180 participants on a tour of the sprawling facility. The young adults were particularly impressed by the complicated but tidy wiring on the switchgear's components.
"Some of these may take days to wire," Bode said. "Usually, we expect between 80 and 100 wires completed per day, per person. Some of our wirers are perfectionists almost to a fault."
All in one facility, some 210 workers coordinate to machine parts, weld structures, apply coatings and paint, wire components, perform tests and assemble a finished product. The tests are Bode's least-favorite part.
"When something fails, it sounds like a cherry bomb going off," he confided.
At a given time, about 20 switchgears are in some stage of production. The time from receiving a job to shipping it out ranges from 30 weeks to nearly a year, depending on how busy AZZ is and the job's scale.
Bode said there are many job opportunities at AZZ, including those available to people with minimal experience. The company is willing to train workers who are truly interested in a job, he said.
"It's almost our preference that we have someone who hasn't done (a particular job) before, because then we can show them how we like it," he said.
By the tour's end, Carter was asking for an application — he said he was interested in welding.
"It's a good industry to get into," Lepper said. "We have more customers wanting our work than we could ever take. We've got jobs booked solid for the next 14 months."
Following a lunch at Tacos and Tequila, students also toured Danuser, a local manufacturer of attachments for agricultural equipment. The company was founded in 1910 and remains in the Danuser family.