Kristina Kopp is only 17 years old, but she is already a full-time aerospace welder for UHI Group in Sterling Heights,
a sheet metal components and assemblies manufacturer.
As impressive as that sounds, only a couple of years prior, Kopp didn’t even know welding existed as a career.
While a student at Stevenson MADE, a four-year program for Manufacturing, Automation and Design Engineering at Stevenson High School in Sterling Heights, Kopp and other MADE students were visited by John Hren, an aerospace welder at UHI. Hren was there to interest students in a career at UHI.
“Kristina thought I was an astronaut,” Hren said, with a smile on his face. “As was kind of expected, a lot of them were unfamiliar with the aerospace industry.”
Fast forward just a couple of years later, and Kopp is producing high-tolerance, precision-made metal ducts, also known as tubular assemblies, for airplane parts. And she is making a good wage, starting a career in a field desperate for skilled tradespeople such as her.
“I started welding in ninth grade (at Stevenson MADE),” Kopp said. “ I was kind of welding for fun for four years until John came, and then I realized there was an industry. So I started taking it more seriously when John started coming to the school.”
Kopp started working for UHI part time in January 2023. She graduated this May and was offered a full-time job in June.
Andrew Loftis, 18, another MADE graduate, took a more traditional path to his job at UHI. He started welding at MADE during lunch time and took part in welding competitions while in high school. He was a hands-on guy from the start, working on cars and helping to make repairs at his father’s lawn-care business. He started working part time at UHI in June 2022, and has been working there ever since. Like Kopp, he was hired full-time in June after high school graduation.
“Before MADE, I always wanted to go to college,” Loftis said. “I really wanted to be an engineer because I wanted to do something like building stuff. But then MADE showed me that you don’t have to go to college. That’s what it mainly taught me. I also got a lot of advice from my teachers. They helped me a lot with my career.
“The COVID years were a factor. I just didn’t like school after that. I just never wanted to be at school. The only class I really enjoyed was welding. And I realized I didn’t have to go to school to be a welder.”
“Friends are a little jealous,” Loftis added. “Most can’t say they have a job and are in their career at 17-18 years old. So that’s really cool.”
Both Kopp and Loftis are just two of the latest Fueling the Talent Pipeline success stories in Macomb County, a partnership formed between Macomb County Planning and Economic Development, local school districts, and the local manufacturing community to direct students to high-demand, well-paid jobs in manufacturing.
Howard Eisenhardt, 60, the aerospace weld leader for UHI Group, said the partnership and Stevenson MADE have been a godsend for his company.
“It’s definitely started to fill in the gaps, our experience gap, especially in our department,” Eisenhardt said. “We have two welders who are in their sixties and another one or two in their fifties. And we’ve had a hard time filling in experienced, aerospace welders.
“We’ve looked at hundreds of resumes. We bring them in for a weld test, and you might get lucky and find one. I think this is helping the community and helping UHI. Maybe they will go back to school and further their careers as a welding inspector or an engineer. But some of the best welding inspectors or engineers are welders. And this is where they start out.”
UHI Human Resources Manager Liz Strom started with the company two years ago, and she almost immediately noticed the lack of diversity in the company’s workforce and how many employees were close to aging out and heading to retirement. She began calling the local colleges, community colleges and high schools. And she developed the partnerships that exist today.
“We were sending out ads and not getting the resumes. So we had to find people who wanted to learn it,” Strom said. “We realized we’ve got to bring
them in green and teach them and train them. I learned about the MADE program and went about building up a partnership and setting up a co-op with them, along with Romeo and Center Line and started building all of that. We got involved with Manufacturing Day and just building it within the community.”
Strom said UHI has had several students serve in internships and co-ops from Romeo Community Schools, Stevenson MADE (part of the Utica Community Schools) and some from the Troy School District. Four have become employees – three from Stevenson and one from Romeo.
Kopp, who prior to entering the MADE program had thoughts of becoming a surgeon, plans on going to college but not yet. Strom said UHI offers college course reimbursement to its employees if they get a 3.5 or higher grade point average in their classes. Kopp wants to spend the near term enjoying her new job.
“I shadowed before I came here, so I knew exactly how it was going to be. It’s really welcoming here. Howie, John and Liz helped me through a lot of stuff. So I had no problems, and it was exactly what I expected it to be,” Kopp said. “I really like it here. It’s a nice shop. And I like to walk around and see what the other plants are doing. (Strom said currently about 80% of UHI’s contracts are automotive, and 20% are aerospace and defense.)”
Eisenhardt said Stevenson MADE and other similar programs have made a huge difference at UHI.
“Without MADE, we would be struggling, absolutely,” he said. “Basically, we would be shorthanded and still looking to fill some empty work centers. And hopefully, it gives us an edge on our competitors.”
To learn more about Fueling The Talent Pipeline, contact Senior Outreach Specialist Jennifer Weot at Jennifer.Weot@macombgov.org