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Setting Students Up for Success

James W. Schlusemann
By James W. Schlusemann Director of Global Business Integration, Navistar Engine Group (retired), 2023 SME President, SME Member Since 1989
SME President Jim Schlusemann (left) attended this year’s SkillsUSA National Leadership & Skills Conference in Atlanta with SME CEO and Executive Director Bob Willig.

Being passionate about manufacturing is a given for SME’s leadership team. For Jim Schlusemann, who began a one-year term as SME President in January, it goes even further. Bringing a lifetime of experience and a deep commitment to continuous education, Schlusemann is a fierce advocate of vocational training and workforce development.

In fact, you could say it’s right up his alley—literally. Schlusemann got his first taste of skilled trades as part of a Vocational Industrial Clubs of America (VICA)—now SkillsUSA—co-op program while attending Glenbard North High School in Carol Stream, Illinois, which whetted his appetite for all things mechanical (and electrical).

Following in his father’s footsteps, Schlusemann embarked on a successful 40-year career at Navistar, before “retiring” in 2013. But he’s been “busier than ever” since then. In addition to serving in various roles with SME, Schlusemann is a long-time mentor with, volunteer, leader and promoter of advancing America’s manufacturing industry. In June, he reconnected with his roots at SkillsUSA’s National Leadership & Skills Conference in Atlanta. Manufacturing Engineering (ME) Lead Editor Steve Plumb caught up with him shortly thereafter to talk about his experience at the competition and the importance of vocational training, as well as the art of automatic pin setting.

ME: What was your experience like with VICA?

Schlusemann: It was a great learning experience for me and opened my eyes to a possible well-paying career in skilled trades. I attended regular high school classes in the morning—math, science, English—then went to work in the afternoon at the local Brunswick bowling alley, which served as the company’s test center for new technology such as electronic score keeping. I worked under the apprenticeship of the head mechanic, learning how to maintain and repair pin-setting machines, which are amazing Rube-Goldberg-on-steroids type of devices, as far as all the complex permeations.

SME President Jim Schlusemann confers with judges during the Additive Manufacturing portion of the SkillsUSA National Leadership & Skills Conference in Atlanta.

ME: This was the first year you attended SkillsUSA’s National Leadership & Skills Conference. What was that like?

Schlusemann: It’s amazing to see how far the organization has grown since I participated as a student in the early 1970s. We didn’t have anything like the event in Atlanta, where there were more than 6,000 high school and college students, all of whom had advanced from state and regional competitions. It was like the Super Bowl for each of the 110 different head-to-head competitions, showcasing everything from cooking and cosmetology to carpentry, construction, welding and other manufacturing skills.

And it was great to see so many parents and family members watching the kids and cheering them on. This type of support is critical at a young age; not only for the students, but it also reinforces the value of manufacturing careers to parents and helps change the old perception of a dirty, smoky work environment.

ME: What was your involvement this year?

Schlusemann: I was a judging consultant for the Additive Manufacturing Competition sponsored by SME and Stratasys (with support from Autodesk). About three dozen high school and college teams competed. Combined, they built more than 500 parts using Stratasys 3D printers. The teams had to design and build parts that attached to a fixture with a rotating mount to grab and hold three progressively more difficult objects.

The top three teams received scholarship funds and other prizes, along with a one-year membership to SME and a subscription to Tooling U-SME classes. And more than half of the 76 participating students passed the Additive Manufacturing Fundamentals Certification Exam, which was offered for free.

ME: What else did you see that impressed you at the competition?

Schlusemann: The breadth and the scope of the program was incredible, as well as the industry support. Overall, I’d be hard pressed to think of a company that really matters in this country that wasn’t represented somehow at the competition. The car companies, airlines, robotics, medical device suppliers—they were all there.

But it was the folks in heavy equipment that are near and dear to my heart. Whenever I see a rear main frame or casting, I remember making those parts. My old company, Navistar, and Cummins were both there. Cummins had 10 beautiful International trucks with the hoods flipped open so the kids could work on the latest diesel engines. There were also backhoes and other equipment to operate, as well sophisticated simulators. It looked like a lot of fun!

ME: Why is it important for SME to be involved with these types of programs?

Schlusemann: It’s the future of our industry. We have to engage, attract and nurture young students to expose them to manufacturing, create interest and build excitement, mentor them and turn them loose to develop their own projects and continue to move the industry forward. The good news is, after attending the SkillsUSA competition, I’m reinvigorated and more optimistic than ever about these students, next-generation workers and America’s future.

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