Charles Henry (left) and Mike Stephens gave students visiting MiCareerQuest some real life examples in manufacturing.

A convoy of yellow school busses snaked through downtown Grand Rapids Thursday with a cargo of almost 9,000 high and middle school students, some traveling from as far as away as Whitehall -- and event had nothing to do with a football championship or rock concert.

Rather, the students who poured through the doors of DeVos Place for MiCareerQuest 2017 wanted to know more about what they could do for a living. And people like Charles Henry and Mike Stephens were more than happy to oblige their questions.

Henry, a 17-year-old student at Comstock Park High School, spoke excitedly about the fun he had programming a robotic cell in the Gill Industries booth that stamped dog tags using thousands of pounds of pressure -- then gently handed them to visitors via a one-armed robot.

“I just love it,’ said Henry, who also takes classes at the Kent Career Tech Center. “There’s a real thrill that you get when you create something.” Stephens, automation and controls engineer at Gill Industries, beamed as he overheard Henry talk about his newfound passion.

“I’m so glad to hear that kind of talk,” Stephens said as he looked around the booth packed with students there to learn more about manufacturing. “We need to get way more people exposed to careers in tool and die, engineering, and maintenance work.”

MiCareerQuest organizers were smart about the way they shepherded the students around the four high-demand industries represented in quadrants at the show -- Advanced Manufacturing, Construction, Health Sciences and Information Technology. Each of the four industries had squares marked by colored curtains, and show volunteers corralled distracted students by waiving them on with colored foam pool noodles. An air horn blast launched the show, and music played when it was time for students to rotate to the next quadrant.

Jay Dunwell explains the finer points of winding springs to students visiting MiCareerQuest.Showing a bit of friendly competition with the other industries, Stephens boasted: “The blue square here is the best. We have the most fun stuff happening.”

Fun was the order of the day at the Wolverine Coil Spring Co. booth, where students cranked a metalforming machine to make their own Slinky steel spring toys and hear from the company president Jay Dunwell about the rewards of careers in manufacturing.

“We don’t get an opportunity to engage with students like this anywhere else,” Dunwell said as he flashed a smile, obviously enjoying his instruction time. “We’ve been supporting initiatives to get students involved in manufacturing for years, and this is a fantastic event.” Dunwell has served on numerous volunteer positions to promote manufacturing in the area, including chairman of the MMTC-West Manufacturers Council of the Right Place.

MiCareerQuest was created two years ago by what is now West Michigan Works! in conjunction with Kent ISD and the Construction Workforce Development Alliance in response to employers’ need for future talent in the four industries. The event engaged students from schools in Allegan, Barry, Ionia, Kent, Montcalm, Muskegon and Ottawa counties.

Primary sponsors of the event include Meijer Inc., Amway, Wolverine Coil Spring, NN Autocam, Spectrum Health, Shape Corp. Enterprise Tool & Die LLC, The Right Place, Grand Rapids Community College and Kent ISD.

“In another place, some of these companies may be competing with each other,” said Steve Heethuis, training director at NN Inc. Autocam Precision Components Group in Kentwood. “But here, we aren’t competing at all. We’ve come together for the students and our community.”