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The Enquirer-Journal, Feb. 12, 2012

Better jobs require better skills
by Carolyn Steeves, The Enquirer Journal

Mike Willard, director of the Advanced Manufacturing Technology department at SPCC, checks the dimensions of the practice work-piece with Frank Kaczmarski.Manufacturing has undergone a makeover in recent decades. However, its image has not changed with its reality.

“We’ve been very candid with the fact that we want to change the perception of manufacturing in Union County, specifically in the Monroe area,” Turbomeca President and CEO Matthew Nelson said. “It’s no longer your grandfather’s manufacturing. The manufacturing that’s still alive in Union County is very much, from our perspective, high technology, if not the highest technology in the industries. It’s exciting.”

The images of assembly lines and punching widgets are still fresh in the minds of many people.

The old mentality of what manufacturing is, even isn’t in the area anymore, Chris Platé, executive director of economic development and aviation for Monroe Economic Development, said.

“People are empowered down on the manufacturing floor,” Platé said. “It’s pretty phenomenal, the amount of responsibility that’s put on each individual in the plant.”

“We pay people more for their minds than for their hands,” Nelson said. “We need them to be part of the business.”

“We call it advanced manufacturing because that’s what it is,” Turbomeca Director of Human Resources Susan Whittington said. “It’s high-tech, precision. We want our employees to think, to be part of the process, to collaborate ... it’s not just pushing buttons.”

Changing manufacturing’s image is a multi-tiered effort. Turbomeca has reached out to Union County Public Schools and other organizations to inform students, their parents and administrators about the new manufacturing.

“Across the state we hear ... that we have to somehow help these younger people understand that manufacturing careers are good careers and it’s not the way it was when our parents or grandparents worked in manufacturing years ago,” Todd Morris, director of corporate training for South Piedmont Community College, said.

SPCC offers classes in advanced manufacturing and computer numeric controlled (CNC) operation. Morris said they have done a number of things through their customized training program.

“Most recently we are working with several area industries on an internship program in our CNC-Machine program and industrial maintenance program to give students an opportunity to get some real work experience as part of their training,” Morris said.

SPCC recently received a grant to help a program where the college will compensate the students while they’re going through on-the-job training as a part of the internship program. Turbomeca, along with several other companies in the area, wrote a letter in support of the grant.

“Manufacturing, as a whole, is increasing across the state and we’re seeing an increase in demand for people with those skills,” Morris said.

By the end of this month Turbomeca should have 114 employees. Their goal for the end of the year is roughly 123 employees. Their goal for 2015 is between 150 and 160 employees.

“The growth is predicated on our ability to have a developed work force in the area, to be able to find the people to fill the jobs that we have open,” Nelson said. “We are having good success now, but the challenge that we’ve given to the local organizations, government and private, is that if we want to continue to grow the aerospace footprint here in Union County, we have to have the work force to support it long-term.”

“We may have enough right now, but as we continue to aggressively recruit, attract and hopefully lock in additional aerospace companies, we have to have work forces to support them to prevent the cannibalization of each other’s work forces,” Nelson said.

This concern is something that Platé is aware of.

“We are very sensitive in the way we recruit so that we don’t over stack a certain job skill and don’t create the pillaging of each other,” Platé said. “We do very much discourage that.”

Whittington hopes to work more with SPCC in the future to develop the work force. They also plan to reach out to The University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Central Piedmont Community College.

“(SPCC) were really foundational in getting us started, getting the work force developed and helping us with some grants for some training,” Whittington said. “We’re in the process right now of working with them to help really expand that.”

“Now we have a higher level of understanding of where the gaps are in the work force and what we need to do to improve those,” Whittington said.

Morris would also like to expand their partnership.

“(I) would like to see us working with area manufacturers in an apprenticeship-style training program where we deliver the knowledge-based training, as well as some of the hands-on training, but then they also experience it in the workplace and they continue to come back to enhance those skills through additional training,” Morris said.

“We want to make these people successful and by doing that, we want to make the industries successful,” Instructor Mike Willard said. He said that input from the industries about what skills they need is very important.

Turbomeca sees their biggest challenge as changing the perception about manufacturing. They have led a lot of tours of their facility and held workshops about working at the facility.

“For us, it’s been more of an educational process in the community,” Whittington said. “(We) still have some way to go, but we’ve definitely made progress.”

Copyright 2012 The Enquirer Journal. All rights reserved.