Manufacturing Academy aims to fill void on skilled employee shortage
By KJ HIRAMOTO Khiramoto@hickoryrecord.com Hickory Daily Record
Posted: Wednesday, March 23, 2016 5:52 pm
HICKORY – HSM Solutions Regional Human Resource Manager Mary Kay Rayfield said that the public can ill afford to undermine the importance of the manufacturing industry, especially when one considers where most, if not all, of those household products and furniture originate.
“I like to tell people that at HSM, you either ride on us, sleep on us or sit on us,” Rayfield said. “All those things, when children sit on school buses, when they sit on the couch to watch TV or lay down to go to sleep at night. They could have HSM components in it. Most people don’t think about those things.”
In spite of all the outsourcing of manufacturing labor that happened during the mid-to-late 2000s, the Greater Hickory Area is home of the eighth largest manufacturing metropolitan statistical area in the United States and the largest in the Carolinas, according to Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC) Business and Industry Services.
Rayfield believes the increased demand for quality in the manufactured goods show some encouraging signs that the industry is here to stay.
“Because so much went overseas, the quality components are starting to come home,” Rayfield said. “It’s where it needs to be, here in the states and in North Carolina.”
With that being said, Rayfield said her company, as well as other manufacturing businesses, are in a serious need of having employees fill all of these openings. She said that a lot of the skill sets involved in manufacturing are all becoming “dying breeds.”
“People don’t learn to sew anymore in high schools like they did years ago,” Rayfield said. “Upholstery and all those things, I call those trades. Just those who (specialize) in working on those heavy pieces of machinery, we call fixers and maintenance personnel… A lot of those types of people are just hard to find nowadays.”
As means of bringing and retaining employees in the manufacturing sector of Catawba County, HSM, along with 24 other local companies all partnered up with CVCC to form a 10-week program called the Manufacturing Academy.
In the Manufacturing Academy, students are being taught to understand the six modules of manufacturing; which includes the overview of the industry, learning problem-solving techniques, working together in teams, understanding the mathematical side of manufacturing, safety and lean manufacturing. Upon completion of all six modules, students are awarded with a Manufacturing Fundamental Certificate from CVCC.
Turbotec Human Resource Manager Joe Lutz is among the partners who sponsored the Manufacturing Academy. Lutz said one of the biggest issues the manufacturing industry faces today is whenever a new company comes into a town like Hickory, often times they have to start from scratch and spend an extensive amount of time in training new employees.
But with the Manufacturing Academy, Lutz said there is a model in place where students or trainees can transition from their previous occupation into manufacturing jobs at a much quicker pace.
“It cuts the time for these companies to market down by a lot,” Lutz said. “That’s a huge advantage over having to build a plant, moving the machinery and while they’re doing all of this, try to figure out how to negotiate a training program… With the Manufacturing Academy, in six to 12 months, you can produce 50 to 100 employees that are trained and ready to go on operating your machineries.”
Lutz called this advantage of bringing in more employees a “double-edge sword.” He said if Catawba County brings in new companies, it increases the competition for talent. But if new companies aren’t being brought – whether it’s through different industries or in complimentary industries – then the base of the city or county’s economy will not be able to grow.
Lutz said the development of the Manufacturing Academy is the product of a collaborative environment where all the manufacturers are working together.
“It reduces our competition for finding the talent,” Lutz said. “We found that by working together, we can actually make competition a little easier to deal with.”
Rayfield said one of the best things about the manufacturing is the industry can accommodate various levels of educational needs.
“You can have very entry level jobs or a very high skilled job,” Rayfield said. “Bottom line is that there’s something for everyone… With the Manufacturing Academy, we get to reach into new markets and be able to promote growth in both the industry and the economies of Catawba County.”
Lutz, who back in February was honored by the Catawba County Chamber of Commerce with the Duke Energy 2016 Community Leadership Award for his work with the Manufacturing Academy, said he and the administrators of the Manufacturing Academy looked at the successes of the Catawba Valley Furniture Academy (CFVA) and tried to “take a lot of pages out of their book.”
The CVFA, as of February, was known for being able to plug in all 59 graduates into fulltime positions with a company in the furniture industry.
Rayfield said her company from the start was very much in favor of being involved with developing an academy similar to CVFA.
“Furniture was a niche, but we knew we had to do something much broader,” Rayfield said.
Like CVFA, the partnering companies recruited select employees to give the Manufacturing Academy a try – or vice versa with employees reaching out to human resources to see if they can enroll with Manufacturing Academy – in hopes of being able to move up in the corporate ranks.
“What we did from an administrative standpoint was that we promised them that if you come and work, we would move you,” Lutz said. “We’re not going to stick you around; we’re going to get things done.”
Alexx Letterman was one of the students recruited to the Manufacturing Academy by his employers. He said since his employer, Blue Ridge Molding (BRM), was willing to pay for tuition and the academy brought something “fresh and different” to his life, he figured he’d give it a try.
Letterman, 24, said his time with the academy has been “a really good experience.” Despite now having a demanding schedule that involves getting up at 5:30 a.m., working at BRM from 6:30 a.m. until 3 p.m., then taking the Manufacturing Academy class from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., he said the classes have given his unique opportunities to network and gain skills that he could bring back to BRM.
“You get a chance to see classmates here have the same problems as you have with their companies and see how you can relate,” Letterman said. “And then a bunch of different instructors have come in and taught us stuff based on the stuff from their companies, their standards and stuff like that… It’s a really interesting experience.”
Letterman, who graduated St. Stephens High School but was unable to have the choice of attending a four-year university because he had to work and take care of his ill mother, said the Manufacturing Academy has been the best possible alternative to a college experience for him.
“It’s a great start for anybody,” Letterman said. “Go through this and it’ll open up a lot of doors in the manufacturing business.”
Letterman’s classmate Aaron Lee Eaton also agreed the networking opportunities have made these classes a worthwhile experience. Eaton said he found the plant tours and getting a chance to meet people from different companies teach and work with him were some of the most enjoyable parts of participating in the Manufacturing Academy.
Eaton, 31, said he signed up for the classes after hearing a couple of his coworkers give rave reviews about their experiences when they graduated from the Manufacturing Academy in the previous cohort.
He also went on to say he’s got a family to provide for with a wife and a newborn daughter, and he felt inspired in wanting to move up in the manufacturing industry as soon as possible.
As the Manufacturing Academy reaches the end of its second cohort of the 10-week curriculum, CVCC Program Developer Dana Glenn said she is very proud of how far the academy has come.
Glenn said she was proud of how a team of employers all came together to come up with a solution that could bring in more jobs in addition to seeing groups of students coming in to fill those jobs or move up with their respective employers.
“This program is all employer-driven,” Glenn said. “Finding jobs for our students is something we’re most proud of. It’s taken a lot of teamwork in our community to build this program. That’s what we’re proud of... It took a team effort.”
Glenn also said she was proud of seeing students like Letterman and Eaton persevere through their demanding day-to-day schedules while finishing the program.
She said she understands it takes a lot of stamina and endurance to go through what they went through.
CVCC will celebrate the work of all 20 students from the Manufacturing Academy, as the program’s graduation is set for Thursday at 5:30 p.m. in the East Wing Auditorium on the CVCC Main Campus.
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