The surprise about WMI’s recent tour for nine Metro Deaf School high school students and three staff was that the event was as rewarding for employees, and owners, sisters Traci and Lori Tapani, as it was for students.
For students, a tour led by a deaf person (WMI employee Matt Thorpe) is rare—just 20 percent of them are, according to Chris Thiers, DHH (Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing) teacher and the school’s transition coordinator. WMI is one of that group. That, alone, made this tour invaluable for students. But there was much more than that.
According to Lori Tapani, “We have a long history of and strong commitment to reaching high school students to show them why careers in manufacturing are so rewarding. What made this different was that we were able to demonstrate to these students that successful careers in manufacturing are absolutely possible and their tour guide was living proof! Matt did a fantastic job of not only leading the tour, but answering questions and demonstrating.”
WMI plans extensively for their student tours—especially this one. They wanted to teach these students about careers in metal fabrication, and how to interview for a job in any field. The Tapanis also wanted to stretch the talents of their employees.
Plans began with welder Matt and Adam Peterson, his manager. Neither one had presented to a group before, but Traci saw it as a great leadership opportunity for both. According to Matt, “I was nervous and had stage fright. I need to be more prepared next time…but I truly enjoyed the students. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.” He was the tour’s primary speaker.
While Matt focused on the work at WMI, Adam talked about how to get a job and how to interview well. As Adam said, “Being able to help others succeed and grow is very important to me.” Adam saw a new side of Matt, too. “Watching Matt present and seeing his pride in himself was fun. He will be a good leader some day.”
Traci noted, “It was really fun for me to see the pride Matt showed in his work, and the skills he has acquired during his years at WMI. I was also impressed with Adam’s presentation and the valuable insights on employment and interviews he shared with students. I’ll definitely ask him to make future presentations.”
The tour began with Traci’s PowerPoint presentation about WMI and its work. Chris noted that the visual s were extremely helpful for students, as was having Matt speak to them in American Sign Language. Of course the students appreciated the beverages and donuts, too, so the stage was well set for a tremendous learning experience. And it showed.
As Chris said, “All of the students loved meeting Matt! Language was not a barrier and they had many questions for him because they had direct communication.”
Matt showed students various parts the company makes for manufacturers. They loved touching the parts and seeing the details, which led to more questions. As Chris said, “When students saw staff asking questions, and Traci, Lori and employees responding with patience and clarity, it gave our students the confidence to ask their own questions.” The students were fully engaged. They said it was “cool” that WMI makes parts for Harley Davidson, and that Traci and Lori ride Harleys, and own and operate WMI.
Matt guided the students on the shop floor. They watched employees perform welding, forming, finishing, and running the laser cutter and Virtek Laser QC (quality check). As Lori said, “We were so proud of our employees who demonstrated the various machines. They were eager to help.” This hands-on learning taught them about the machines used, skills required and properties of different metals.
WMI employees were also eager to demonstrate their skills to the students. They included: Jeff Solomon, Joel Johnson, Stephanie Boelter, Linda Miller (set-up and snacks)
Chris said, “All [the students] were fascinated and found something they may be able to do in the future. Before we even left the building, the students asked if we could make this an annual trip. This has never before happened on a tour.” Best of all, Chris said, “…Matt gave them hope and inspiration that even though doors have been closed on them in the past, or they may have failed at a specific task, they should not give up, but continue to work hard to achieve their goals.”
The Tapani sisters were thrilled with the students. “I honestly don’t think I have ever seen a group of students as excited as this…I got a thank you note from each student on the tour,” said Traci.
The Tapanis hope other employers will consider hiring the deaf. “Learning to communicate with an employee who is deaf takes some extra effort, but it can be done. I think it’s important for more people to know that. We’re fortunate to have many open minded employees at WMI who have worked hard to learn some basic sign language so they can more easily communicate with Matt,” said Traci.