After school program in Roanoke gives students interest in manufacturing

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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7) President Donald Trump campaigned hard on American jobs and manufacturing. But some see a workforce gap looming as older workers get set to retire.

Sara Machi/WDBJ7

With every drill, every measure and every cut, Breckenridge Middle Schoolers are picking up new skills at Roanoke's Maker Mart.

Founder Aaron Dykstra got the idea through personal experience.

"That was me growing up. I was not engaged in the classroom. I was looking out the window, getting in trouble, and it took working with my hands to realize 'hey there's something here. I really enjoy this. This is how my brain works' and I think there's a lot of kids today but just don't have that exposure at all," Dykstra said.

Some kids, like 11-year-old Camron Johnson, are being exposed to entirely new concepts.

"It's been kind of challenging, and then easy, and then it goes back to challenging, and then easy. And then we got to use a saw to," Camron said.

Other kids, like eighth grader Josiah Bommer, are expanding on their hobbies and interests.

"Mainly the fact that I get to work on projects with tools that I don't normally have at home. I don't have a drill press, don't have a miter saw, all I have is a hand saw," Josiah said.

And the skills Bommer learns here today could turn into paychecks if he sticks with a trade after high school.

"We have an aging workforce. Baby boomers are retiring, and we need skilled workers to take those positions," Director Kathleen Duncan said.

Duncan says she wants kids more hands-on training at the middle school level so that sparks are already ignited when they come through her doors at the Roanoke Technical Education Center.

"Every seventh grader in our public schools has a career plan by seventh grade. Putting that into place in an earlier time frame, and knowing what you want to do, and how you can go about doing in Roanoke city schools is invaluable to students," Duncan said.

Dykstra says his goal is to keep these kids learning, even if they don't know it.

"I'm trying to trick them into that. I don't want to put it out. I want this to have a starkly different feel than a lot of the stuff they are getting in a typical classroom," Dykstra said.

But at least some students tell their parents they see this for what it is: a new kind of classroom.

This program is funded with a 21st Century grant, and the school district thinks it's the only off-campus after school program.

Dykstra has different schools come through here on different days of the week, and he is always looking for people willing to grow the program, with lumber and supplies. If you can help out, please email Dykstra at