Where the Workers Are

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The recession hit Michigan, home of the nation’s automotive industry, hard in 2008 and 2009. For Autocam Corp. in Grand Rapids, this meant taking drastic action to protect its business and 1,500-employee workforce. As the precision manufacturer of automotive components for equipment manufacturers and suppliers saw its business dwindle, it cut back its machinists’ standard 50-hour work week to 45 hours, then 40 hours, says Jim Woczynski, Autocam’s human resource director. Even then, some layoffs had to be made.

When orders finally began picking back up in the second half of 2010, Autocam increased the machinists’ hours again to meet the renewed demand. The company faced a choice for the long haul: plan for the next five or 10 years by hiring and training new machinists, a highly skilled and specialized position, or consider offshoring jobs some-place that already had qualified machinists.

And it’s instances like these where community colleges have the opportunity to show how quickly they can adapt to regional industry needs.

Autocam leaders, according to Woczynski, realized the company could build on its existing employee training relationship with Grand Rapids Community College to plan for five or 10 years down the road. The company started by obtaining funding through a Michigan New Jobs Training Program grant offered by the Michigan Community College Association. GRCC was a natural choice for training because it is a convenient resource for customized training. “It’s 15 minutes away,” he notes.

Under Autocam’s Machine Tool Apprenticeship Program, prospective machinists receive 8,000 hours of on-the-job training at Autocam and 832 classroom hours at GRCC. Trainees work four 10-hour days and go to class on the fifth day, explains Woczynski. “To become a good machinist, you can’t do it in six months,” he adds. The apprenticeship period, in fact, lasts three years, a significant commitment for employer and employee.

Currently, Autocam has three cohorts of new hires in training totaling approximately 45 employees. Retention in the program has been “pretty good,” Woczynski says. The first cohort is intact and the other two cohorts have lost only a few members. “We monitor them very closely. We don’t want someone to get three-quarters of the way through the program and then say, ‘Gee, they’re not making it,’” he continues. Monitoring includes regular reports from GRCC, and Autocam managers periodically visit the classroom to observe.

Workforce development partnerships not only upgrade workers’ skills, but “set up career pathways in the companies,” which can increase retention, says Julie Parks, GRCC’s director of workforce training. Customized training curricula can lead to workers eventually earning two- or four-year degrees.

But, as community college leaders know, that’s not necessarily the path students need to take. The key is more about training workers to be adequately skilled and prepared to advance to higher skill levels. Harry C. Moser, founder and president of the Reshoring Initiative—which works to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States, known as “reshoring,” by helping companies accurately assess offshoring costs—notes that Americans tend to “have this misinformation that everyone needs a four-year degree.”

Jobs Lost and Found

Manufacturers began offshoring jobs in the 1950s to Japan where wages were lower and the workforce was not unionized, says Moser.

Over the next several decades, U.S. manufacturers sent jobs to Japan, China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, and Mexico, he says. But offshoring started to become less cost-effective due to rising wages in those countries plus increased shipping costs and taxes. Manufacturers are now training new hires and retraining employees for highly skilled manufacturing jobs to fulfill their business needs and save money. Keeping manufacturing jobs local reduces the “total cost of ownership,” according to Moser.
Of course, it’s not just manufacturing that community colleges can help through workforce development.

The Job Training Partnership Act of 1982 gave community colleges, for the first time, a say in how funds for workforce development training are distributed locally. “The recession of the early 1980s—the last time unemployment rates exceeded 10 percent in many states—motivated an expanded role for community colleges in workforce training,” according to the 2012 study “Workforce Training in a Recovering Economy: Perceptions of State Community College Leaders” by The University of Alabama’s Education and Policy Center.

Now, more employers are turning to community colleges for cost-efficient, customized, and flexible training, and the institutions are responding with programs that not only contribute to the local economy, but are self-sustaining.

Community colleges across the country partner with a variety of industries to offer workforce development classes on-site and/or on campus to upgrade employees’ skills and train new hires. These partnerships are instrumental in creating a pipeline of skilled workers at the ready as the U.S. emerges from the current recession and the Baby Boom generation begins retiring.

The precision manufacturing industry is especially vulnerable to these factors, the National Association of Manufacturers found in its 2010 report, “Roadmap to Education Reform for Manufacturing.” At the height of the recession, 32 percent of manufacturers surveyed said they had vacant jobs because they could not find workers with the right skills. The report also stated that 2.7 million manufacturing workers in the U.S. age 55 and older will most likely retire in the next 10 years.

James Wall, executive director of the National Institute for Metalworking Skills Inc. (NIMS), says that manufacturing classes at community colleges tend to be full.

Pipelines in Place

Creating a pipeline of highly skilled employees is a top priority for the partnership between Schramm Inc. and Delaware County Community College (Pa.). Schramm, a manufacturer and supplier to the hydraulic drill industry, contracted with DCCC to conduct “Schramm-specific” hydraulic and electrical courses for its employees. The partnership is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) Grant Program to expand and improve employers’ ability to deliver career training programs that can be completed in two years or less and prepare program participants for employment in high-wage, high-skill occupations.

In September 2011, nearly $500 million in grants were made to community colleges for targeted training and workforce development to help economically dislocated workers who want to change careers. A consortium of 14 Pennsylvania community colleges, including DCCC, was awarded $20 million to develop workforce delivery and curriculum development systems targeting laid-off workers seeking additional credentials.

John Hadfield, general shop foreman at Schramm, says workers receive on-site training four hours a day, three days a week for several weeks. The company and DCCC are currently planning advanced courses to upgrade employees’ mechanic skills.

DCCC’s flexibility and the speed with which training was put in place quickly won Schramm over, Hadfield says. One month, DCCC and Schramm met to talk about training possibilities and two months later the training was in place, he notes.

While Schramm initially obtained federal funds to launch the training program, Hadfield says the company was so pleased with the results that “now we just go ahead and do it whether we get the [funding] support or not.”

DCCC has trained 40 Schramm employees this year, says Karen P. Kozachyn, dean of workforce development and community education at DCCC. Schramm is a repeat customer, “coming back year after year.”

For many employers, “money is scarce at this point” when it comes to employee training, she says. “Community colleges offer more bang for their buck.” DCCC sees workforce development as part of its mission to provide quality educational programs and services that are student-focused, accessible, comprehensive, and flexible to meet the educational needs of the diverse communities it serves, Kozachyn explains.

Partnerships are key to providing “potential customers with the quality training they are looking for,” she says. DCCC also partners with a consortium of community colleges in the Philadelphia region to provide expanded resources. “If one community college doesn’t have something, another one will,” she points out. “There is a community college in your backyard.”

On the Same Page

“Community colleges as partners really just make sense,” says Yvette Snowden, dean of workforce development and community partnerships at Prince George’s Community College (Md.). “We’re in a position to respond quickly to [manufacturers’] training needs.”

Snowden cautions, however, against moving forward too quickly with a new training partnership and not doing the research to confirm that all partners’ goals are aligned and that jobs will be available when the training is completed.

Community colleges are well-positioned to keep an eye on local business, government, and education trends and to bring stakeholders together to evaluate employers’ training needs, she says.

In June, for example, PGCC convened a forum to identify science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce training needs and business development opportunities in Prince George’s County, Snowden shares. Among the topics discussed was the formation of a county-wide technology and engineering council, which would be tasked with ensuring that local employers have access to educated, highly trained workers to meet current and future industry demands.

Workforce development programs also generate benefits for community colleges, both tangible and intangible.

“While about 62 percent of the College's operating revenue is from tuition and fees, workforce development initiatives have helped the College enhance its education and training programs,” notes DCCC’s Kozachyn. The TAACCCT grant, for example, has enabled the college to install new equipment at one campus. “This equipment is currently used to train laid-off and underemployed workers in how to be computer numeric control operators," she says, adding that this skill is reported to be in high demand by Pennsylvania manufacturers.

Revenue generated by GRCC’s workforce development training covers program expenses, says Parks. “But we do a lot for [GRCC] that isn't necessarily directly financially related. We build connections with employers [by connecting] them to faculty and students on the credit, and non-credit side, and connect internship, job shadowing, or co-op experiences. We also connect faculty with companies and to groups working on skills gaps, new skills and workforce needs.”

The Right Fit

Patrick Henry Community College (Va.)  has identified advanced manufacturing as the next industry sector to be targeted for customized workforce training program development. “We know that most job creation comes from expanding business,” says Rhonda Hodges, dean of workforce development and continuing education. “Manufacturing continues to be the largest employment sector in our service region, and it is critical that our employers are able to recruit a highly-qualified workforce.”

Drake Extrusion Inc., a Martinsville, Va., polypropylene fiber manufacturer and supplier, has been partnering with PHCC since 1995. A newly developed program is training employees in equipment maintenance skills. Drake Extrusion is a success story in the midst of the recession because the company is actually expanding, according to Hodges.

The advanced skill level required of employees means Drake Extrusion is always in recruitment mode. “We continually struggle with a shortage of workers despite a high unemployment rate in the area,” says CEO John Parkinson. But he says he hopes that in the next two years the company will hire 15 to 20 individuals who have been trained through the PHCC partnership.

Drake Extrusion wants to hire people who can do more than simply run the machines, Parkinson points out. The company needs a pool of employees with general skills, particularly “soft skills” like decision making, he explains.

Parkinson will advise other employers to put their faith in process and actively help educators develop the training programs needed. “Nobody has a silver bullet for these things. You have to work together and persevere,” he says.

‘BILT’ for Success

Hodges says PHCC has also recently implemented a new, four-phase approach to workforce training program development, which emphasizes employer engagement through the creation of sector-specific Business and Industry Leadership Teams (BILTs). “It has really worked well for us,” she notes.

Employers and workforce agencies form BILTs to collaborate with PHCC and identify the knowledge and skills program participants need to secure potential employment. Employers also forecast their need for future employees, identify industry trends, participate in recruitment events, and provide instructors and speakers for classes, Hodges explains. An Advanced Manufacturing Business and Industry Leadership Team has recently been formed and is charged with developing stackable credentials in advanced manufacturing, from entry-level technician certificate programs through associate degree-granting programs, she adds.

Phase I establishes the BILT. In Phase II, training programs are developed, with a curriculum created with advice from BILT members including employers. During Phase III, BILT employer members may provide internship opportunities for students. While the employers may agree to an interview, program graduates are not guaranteed a job, explains Hodges. Finally, in Phase IV, PHCC and BILT members evaluate program outcomes and performance measurements.

Hodges recommends engaging employers as early as possible in the development process by surveying employers through the local chamber of commerce and meeting directly with companies. “Get employers involved up front,” she says.   

Samantha Drake is a Philadelphia-area freelance writer and editor.

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