Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing designed to train future skilled professionals [Bristol Herald Courier, Va.]
(Bristol Herald Courier (VA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Oct. 27--KINGSPORT , Tenn. -- Eastman Chemical Co. faces a potential trained labor shortage; of the 3,000 employees at the main plant, at least 25 percent are eligible for retirement.
"Attracting people to this plant is something that we are concerned about," said Linda Lewis, Eastman's director of operations support services.
Over the past decade, the average age of the trained workforce in manufacturing has gone from 40.5 years to 44.1, and 75 percent of companies surveyed by Deloitte, a U.S. consulting firm, believe the aging skilled production workforce is a significant problem.
"Across the nation there is a gap in skilled labor," Northeast State Community College President Janice Gilliam said. "Manufacturing is coming back. It's going to be more automated, and people will have to have technical skills."
That creates a challenge for workforce development professionals in the Mountain Empire.
To meet that need, the 26,000-square-foot Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing was created. Filled with robotics arms, welding equipment and high-tech electronics, the center is designed to train future skilled manufacturing professionals.
And people are taking advantage. On any given day, hundreds of students use the facility, hoping to fill the growing need for skilled labor.
"The market is wide open for vocation trades," Gilliam said.
In 1999, paper manufacturer Domtar was in the middle of downsizing and Eastman had announced significant cuts. Manufacturing in the United States and East Tennessee was changing, and business and community leaders in Kingsport and Sullivan County knew this region would have to adjust.
"We had to do something to raise the economic level of growth," said Jeff McCord, the vice president of economic and workforce development at Northeast State .
So they got together, and developed a plan. Based on the belief that academics was a path to improving the prosperity of the community by creating a skilled workforce, Eastman, Domtar, Northeast State and other organizations came together in a public-private partnership to create an academic village near downtown Kingsport.
"It's an economic development initiative," McCord said.
The community broke ground in 2008 on the Regional Center for Manufacturing, one of five buildings in the academic village. Domtar donated the land and the state of Tennessee , as part of an Eastman expansion, provided a $15 million grant to build the facility, buy equipment and operate the center.
"Eastman worked with the state to provide funding to grow jobs and attract people in advanced manufacturing," Lewis said.
The center is owned by the Northeast State Foundation and operated jointly by the partners.
Unlike other training centers across the country, the partners adopted an open model. Not only could the manufacturing companies that funded construction and operation use the facility, it was open to any manufacturer and to Northeast State students.
McCord said Domtar and Eastman see that as an advantage, because a quality workforce helps everyone.
"It isn't called the Domtar Academy or the Eastman Institute," McCord said. "It's open to all manufacturers. ... We get visitors from all over the state and the Southwest looking at this model."
Gilliam said the open model has helped to attract better students. Rather than just pulling from employees at Eastman or Domtar, the center and the college can train people from throughout the community.
"We invite students off the streets to come and take courses," Gilliam said. "There is some perception that it's only a Domtar or Eastman facility, but it's for everyone."
The facility has three objectives -- create a trained workforce, attract companies to the region and provide outreach to the community.
McCord said outreach has proven to be one of the main drivers. He and the other center employees want to demonstrate the viability of a career as a skilled employee at a manufacturing facility.
"Now that everybody is retiring, the pipeline [of qualified people] is extremely low," Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing Dean Jeff Frazier said.
The outreach involves a lot of work and personal interaction with students from elementary school all the way into high school. So far this year, the center has logged 2,000 hours of outreach with students.
The center tries to educate students about the types of jobs in advanced manufacturing as well as the earnings potential.
"They have this myth that manufacturing is working on a dirty shop floor," Frazier said.
That is not the case, he said. A modern manufacturing facility is clean and high tech. An employee must receive advanced training to operate or repair most of the equipment, something that can take years.
The outreach happens in a variety of ways. The center has a mobile manufacturing lab that travels to schools in the region. The lab has hands-on activities that teach students the skills involved in advanced manufacturing. And in the summer, the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing holds an Advanced Manufacturing Camp for Kids. Organized for middle school students, the camp is held twice a summer.
Frazier said middle school students are the perfect age to excite about a career in manufacturing.
"When they put their hands on things, they are engaged," Frazier said.
Another way the center provides outreach is working with students who attend the Innovation Academy , a middle school that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math education, where Frazier is a frequent visitor.
"He comes into the school and demonstrates robotics," Principal Sandy Watkins said. "Anytime you have robotics, you get people excited."
She said Frazier often talks with the students about what an employee in advanced manufacturing can earn and that usually gets some attention.
"They had no idea what someone can make there," Watkins said. "It gives what we are doing a purpose."
The outreach is part of Northeast State 's larger push toward vocation training, Gilliam said. About 55 percent of students enrolled at the college are in a vocational program.
Welding has become one of the focuses. The college received a $1.86 million federal grant to train displaced workers in welding, and the school partners with a welding program at Sullivan Central High School . Students enrolled in the high school welding program also receive instruction at the college.
"We are trying to recruit more and more students," Gilliam said.
Besides the outreach, the center helps to create a stable workforce through a partnership between Eastman and Northeast State that trains people enrolled in Eastman's apprenticeship programs.
Lewis said the company often hires entry-level employees and then places them in a three-year apprenticeship. Part of that time is spent at the center doing hands-on training.
Many of the apprentices are trained in electromechanical repair. They learn to operate and repair many of the pieces of production equipment at Eastman.
Lewis said the program is an important way of providing a trained workforce for the company.
The training "is basically fundamentals that someone needs to work in a chemical plant," Lewis said.
She said the center is a vital tool for the company and for manufacturing in the region. The equipment and level of training is high quality at the center and has helped to improve operations at Eastman.
"This is why the partnership exists," Lewis said.
Ron Broadwater, a technical coordinator at the center, is a retired Eastman Employee. He said the type of training required must be learned through experience, something the apprenticeships provide.
"It's more show than tell," Broadwater said.
Networks-Sullivan Partnership CEO Richard Venable said when companies are looking to expand or relocate to the region, their representatives are given a tour of the center where they can see the education in progress. It shows them that Tennessee has the ability to recruit and train advanced manufacturing employees.
"After site location and incentives, [companies] look at workforce training," McCord said. "We can tell them that we have 200 people in the pipeline."
He said that is one of the reasons for the open access to the facility. The center can benefit everyone in the region economically and a new company can use the facility to train employees.
"We want the RCAM to be an engine for economic development and attracting people to the region," McCord said.
(c)2013 the Bristol Herald Courier (Bristol, Va.)
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