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LA QUINTA, CALIF. — Mold makers concerned about securing skilled workers in the future should look to a high school in a tough neighborhood of eastern Los Angeles to see how they can make a difference.

Mike Koebel, president and owner of Prestige Mold Inc., a 65-employee mold shop in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., teamed up about two years ago with Fontana High School teacher William Clarke. Together they created the Fontana Project, a program designed to interest high school students in the mold-building profession and provide courses to start them on the path to real-world apprenticeships.

The Washington-based Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s national board honored the effort March 13 at the SPI Molders & Moldmakers conference in La Quinta. The board awarded the project one of the $1,000 grants SPI has set aside for plastics-related education and training.

Fontana Project founders had one built-in advantage, Koebel (pronounced ``cable'') explained in a recent telephone interview. Though many U.S. high schools have cut their shop and metalworking classes due to budget constraints, ``Kaiser Steel used to be out here and supported Fontana High School, which still has a strong metalworking program as a result.''

That was the only leg-up needed by Koebel and Clarke, a professor at San Bernardino Valley College.

They worked closely with the school district, giving plant tours to teachers and guidance counselors and helping to craft an appropriate metal-machining curriculum that would lead to injection mold-making apprenticeships. They gained the support of the Western Section of SPI, which helped raise some crucial funding, and then garnered the support of the national SPI board.

Koebel donated a mold, and Albert Schmid, president of Superior Mold Co. in Ontario, Calif., contributed a used press.

The path was not without bumps and detours. Koebel said they invested significant time educating school board members and gaining their support for the project, only to see local elections prompt wholesale changes to the board.

``And then we'd have to start all over,'' he said.

In the end, the school board decided the initiative was too narrowly focused on this curious and largely unknown profession of injection mold making. The board redirected the project into a Regional Occupational Program designed for more general machining skills.

``I was disappointed, to say the least,'' Koebel said, but he and Clarke forged ahead.

ROP opened the door to adults. Though not opposed to the concept of older students, Koebel said he preferred to focus on high school students, since adults changing jobs in midcareer usually cannot afford to start at the low pay levels required of apprentices.

The first ROP program began with the fall 1996 semester, and included 12 Fontana High School students and five adults. The course consists of two four-hour night classes per week. Though not a prerequisite, interested students usually also enroll in FHS' machine shop class, which gives them an additional three hours per day, five days a week, of general machining experience.

For the current semester, 11 students and seven adults are enrolled.

Koebel said he has hired several kids out of Fontana High School.

Two of Clarke's students work for him now.

``You can teach aptitude, but you can't teach them attitude,'' stressed Koebel, a 39-year-old Canadian native whose father also is a toolmaker and works for Prestige.

Mold making is hard work, and takes intelligence and commitment, he said. One needs to combine and apply various disciplines, including computer science and math, especially trigonometry.

``A mold maker can make $70,000 a year, but you work long hours for it'' — often 10 hours a day, six days a week, he said.

Koebel said his mission is to demonstrate to kids that mold making is not something to view only as a part-time paycheck or summer job, but as a career that creates value, and one that can offer a lot of satisfaction and rewards.

To do so, though, requires him to convince educators and school boards of the same thing, to ensure the necessary courses and training programs are put in place.

Though disappointed that the school board made the program more generic than he desired, Koebel remains determined.

``Maybe we didn't get a home run this time, but we're on base now. We need to stay in the game.''

And the stakes, in his view, are very high: ``There aren't going to be any mold makers around if we don't start training them!''