Lincoln High School senior Richard Brooks was recently accepted into a work-study program where he will earn an associates degree and certification as an Advanced Manufacturing Technician.Sophia Kalakailo

WASHTENAW COUNTY, MI – Richard Brooks was taken by the world of cars and mechanics back in sixth grade. It was working on his friend’s dad’s 1967 Mustang and 1987 Foxbody that “got the gears rolling,” he said.

Brooks, 18 and a Lincoln High School senior, was recently accepted into a work-study program by the Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education. Students in the program spend most of their week with a local employer and the rest attending community college classes while being paid a competitive wage, according to the FAME Program’s website.

After a long, nine-interview process, Brooks was placed with Toyota Research and Development. At the end of the program, he will earn an associates degree and certification as an advanced manufacturing technician. He competed with applicants who he viewed as “book smart.”

Brooks’ acceptance into the program comes amid Lincoln Consolidated School District’s efforts to expand its STEM-related programs – including technical programs like manufacturing that don’t always require a four-year degree. It’s also amid state investments in advanced manufacturing industries.

“I didn’t think I was gonna get there,” Brooks said. “There were so many people that applied… I was telling the guy, I got experience. The difference between me and this guy – I might not have the best GPA – is I have common sense. If you gave this guy a flashlight, he could probably design it, make it, but if you hand me the flashlight, I could take it apart, put it back together and tell you how it works.”

Brooks was already spending most of his time outside of school working on cars, getting Automotive Service Excellence certified through programs his schools offered and working at a mechanic’s shop. Ultimately though, he still thought of the world of cars as side work. Brooks was considering college or another trade, but he wasn’t committed.

“It was really more of just a side hobby, side work,” Brooks said. “I wasn’t really gonna pursue it until [my teacher] told me to. That really just opened up my mind like man, I really can.”

His engineering teacher, Richard Roe, pushed Brooks to apply for the FAME Program and consider his interests as a serious career. Brooks signed up for his class by accident, he said, but it opened up “a whole different door” for him.

“[Brooks] really liked working with cars and stuff,” Roe said. “And when he got an opportunity to seek out not getting busted knuckles and getting dirty all day, and having a little bit higher of a salary, more stable work, he was super interested in it.”

Brooks is just one product of the school district’s expanding technical education and partnerships.

Through partnerships with Washtenaw Community College, Ypsilanti Community School’s Regional Career Technical Center and South & West Washtenaw Consortium – which provides career and technical education to juniors and seniors – students are seeing more opportunities in STEM and alternate paths to a four-year-degree. Eastern Michigan University is also using money from Toyota to develop an institute dedicated to STEM programs for students of Ypsilanti Community Schools and Lincoln Consolidated Schools.

Even at the elementary level, students are seeing more STEM programming, particularly at Brick Elementary School, where students went to a career day featuring everything from pilots and trades professionals to neuroscientists and engineers.

Lincoln High School will also prepare students for careers with a new technical program focused on manufacturing. It comes through a partnership the state has with the Southfield-based nonprofit the SME Education Foundation, which serves the manufacturing industry.

“Whatever their dreams or passions are – if it’s four-year degrees, we want to make sure we’re preparing them for those options,” said Superintendent Bob Jansen. “But we also want to provide alternatives for kids that maybe that’s not right. For a period of time, it was every kid has to go to college and there are some there are certain pathways that don’t necessarily rely on kids having to.”

Brook’s teacher, Roe, has been a proponent of this push – particularly around advanced manufacturing fields. He saw a need for a “middle ground” between a trade and college.

“[Companies] want that middle ground,” Roe said. “They want those students that have been trained in some skills but don’t necessarily need them to have a four-year degree and coming in there and getting right to work with some good paying jobs in advanced manufacturing.”

On average, a career in manufacturing pays more than $84,000 a year in salary and benefits, according to FAME.

Ultimately, the district’s goal is to get students “stackable credentials,” Jansen said, meaning students can leave Lincoln schools with credentials and certifications that could get them into a job immediately or help them pursue further education.

“Times have changed and right now schools need to be adaptable to meet the kids where they are today and create opportunities for the jobs that they’re going to be facing,” Jansen said.

Their hope with these programs, Jansen said, is that Lincoln graduates can fuel the local workforce, and they won’t need to leave the area or state.

This is in line with state priorities. As the population declines, state leaders are trying to keep workers here, particularly in the clean energy sector.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced earlier this year a $125 million investment focused on growing Michigan’s battery manufacturing and advanced manufacturing sectors, particularly in clean energy.

In his new role, Brooks will be working on “pretty much anything to make your everyday vehicle more reliable and more modern,” whether that’s electric or typical gasoline-powered vehicles.

“This year, [Mr. Roe] was really a mentor,” Brooks said. “He really put me in a direction that led me to success.”

He will get started at Toyota after he graduates. In the meantime, Brooks is thinking about going to prom and battling “senioritis.”