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Flat-headed teacher gets a glimpse of work in the making

This summer, Ben Butts, a professor of industrial arts and technical education at Flathead High School, gained new insights into the manufacturing process through a week-long internship at Applied Materials.

“I saw it as a very high quality experience for a teacher like me to go into an industrial environment and see exactly what the employees are doing. Now when I go back to class and students ask me what it’s like to work in this field, or they ask me what I need to know to do it, I can tell them,” Butts said.

The externship, which was offered to teachers across Montana, was developed through a partnership between Reach Higher Montana and the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center. Both organizations are members of a work-based learning collaboration that seeks to meet Montana’s workforce needs by harnessing the potential of students, according to Reach Higher Montana. According to the 2021 Montana Manufacturing Report, more than 3,900 manufacturing companies are in operation statewide.

Butts was able to choose from a list of manufacturers with a few participants located right in the heart of the valley. He chose Applied Materials, a global semiconductor and display equipment company with locations in Kalispell and Evergreen, because he thought it would apply to the engineering and drafting classes he teaches.

Although he had visited Applied Materials in the past, the externship provided a deeper experience that included hands-on opportunities. He took part of the Applied Materials training, which included practicing different tasks.

He said much of the work requires a mastery of basic math and reading skills, especially when it comes to measuring (using both the American and metric systems), counting and follow instructions precisely.

“Not all employees need a master’s degree or an engineering degree, but you should know the basics – measuring, counting – and taking pride in your work with attention to detail,” he said. he declares.

“You count maybe 100 little screws. If you put 103 screws in the bag, someone will lose money down the road, or if you short them, [the customer] wouldn’t be able to finish assembling the part,” he said, by way of example.

He said engineers designing various parts and projects were usually on hand to help assemblers, help with project changes and escalations.

“The one thing I really noticed was how well they worked as a team to achieve the end goal of getting their product out and shipping it,” Butts said.

In addition to teamwork and motivation, other soft skills he noticed were important: communication, organization and adaptability. As a result of this experience, he hopes to put more emphasis on soft skills in the classroom.

“Just like regular academic skills…these are all things that make it easier to perform your job, to be recognized and to advance in positions at a company like Applied,” he said.

The average annual salary for manufacturing jobs was about $52,000, according to the Montana Manufacturing report. Compared to the state average, this represents a percentage increase of 11%.

“The old myth that manufacturing jobs are dangerous, dirty, dead-end and depressing couldn’t be further from the truth,” Montana Manufacturing Extension Center Director Paddy Fleming said in the press release. “Manufacturing today offers well-paying, high-potential, meaningful and exciting career opportunities. We want teachers to experience the industry first-hand to help bring relevant, real-world contact to Montana classrooms.

Reporter Hilary Matheson can be reached at 758-4431 or

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