Divide and Conquer

Holland CEO says kids who understand division can learn its business

When Holland 1916 celebrated its hundredth anniversary five years ago, the company reflected on employee relationships and contemplated how they would navigate the next century. “The way we got to the first hundred years was great people,” said CEO Mike Stradinger. So, to mark this corporate milestone, the company decided to deepen its commitment to education and student engagement.

Holland 1916‘s work-based learning programs traditionally focused on high school students, but they often found that a third had already checked out by then. The company leadership agreed that if a student could divide, they could learn the business. As part of their anniversary celebration, the company launched a new program to introduce 4th graders to real-world math applications at one of its subsidiary companies.

Holland Nameplate makes stainless steel and aluminum nameplates and metal control panels for more than 1,000 customers. You will find their products on machines or equipment where information needs to be permanently displayed. Making these nameplates requires a lot of math, and young children who participate in Holland’s real-world learning program quickly realize they have the numeracy skills to solve business-related problems.

Brad Farmer, the controller at Holland Nameplate, explains a typical day for a fourth grader who tours their operation. Students first learn about the fabrication process, said Farmer. “They screen print a logo on a metal nameplate that they get to keep, and we set up a station where students get to play with calipers so they can learn how to measure stuff,” he said. “We walk them through a few real-world math problems, like how to estimate, how to figure out how much money you are making, how many sheets of metal you need, basically the questions we deal with every day.”

Once students see connections between what they learn in school and how it relates to the workplace, the questions start to flow. For example, Farmer said, “When they first arrive, we hear the questions you would expect like ‘do you like working here, how much money do you make, do you like your boss’ that sort of thing. But, by the end of the day, the questions are more engaging like ‘how much does this machine cost, how many parts do you ship a day’.”

The program at Holland Nameplate doesn’t replace classroom-based learning, but it brings context to math. “All of a sudden, the kids pay more attention, and math makes more sense,” said Farmer. He even has received reports of students showing more interest in their coursework following participation in the Holland program.

The Holland Nameplate team hopes other businesses will open their doors to students. While it may seem daunting at first, Holland says you need to understand you won’t get it right the first time and to evolve as you go. “You can give kids hope by providing context,” says Stradinger. He explained that many students only see work through the lens of a menial job. Using the context of a nurse or engineer shows why paying attention in school will eventually open doors they never knew existed.