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Lacking Qualified Workers, Manufacturers Invest In Training Programs

The shortage of qualified workers is a problem that’s become increasingly urgent for manufacturers across the country and in Vermont.

For years technical programs at high schools have been teaching basic skills, but the specialized needs of modern manufacturers demand more specialized training and an approach customized to individual manufacturers.  

For Velan Valve Corporation the problem finding machinists became evident a few years back. 

Whenever the company advertised an opening  there were lots of applicants but no one was qualified.

“I don’t know how many cooks and landscapers and bottlewashers.  A lot of cooks!” says Dennis Lalancette, general manager at Velan’s Williston plant, describing who applied for the positions. 

The Canadian based manufacturer has facilities around the world that produce build-to-order valves for the petroleum and defense industries.   They range in size from small 2-inch models to massive valves with elaborate controls.

Lalancette says finding qualified machinists was a matter of survival for the Williston facility.  If the company couldn’t make valves in Vermont, it could easily send the work somewhere else.

“We didn’t want that to happen,” he says. “We’ve got 150 families counting on us to do the right thing here.”

The right thing was for Velan to more proactive in creating a pool of qualified workers.  

Arrayed inside the plant are machines that require a new set of math-heavy technical skills.

Velan needs people who can problem solve and think on their feet. The training required is more than the company can do on its own and it demands something more than a few technical center classes. 

So the company partnered with SkillTech, the adult education arm of the Center for Technology in Essex.  They designed a training program specifically for Velan. It includes 200 hours of class work, heavy on math, with courses like “Geometric Dimensions and Tolerances”, “Interpreting Engineering Drawings.”

There’s also an emphasis on learning to operate CNC technology, the computer operated machines that can be found on factory floors everywhere.

The program also teaches current Velan employees how to be mentors.  In addition to the classroom hours, the program includes 16 months of hands on apprenticeship training. 

For modern manufacturers like Velan it’s not possible to wing it and simply hope someone can pick up what they need on the job.

“The mission of this plant is to make valves,” says Paul Clark, SkillTech’s coordinator.  “Training programs are really not their forte. So we will develop the program, the curriculum that meets their needs.”

Clark says there are many professional training programs in Chittenden County, but until now no one has focused on training for manufacturing jobs.  For the past three years, SkillTech has been trying to fill that vacuum.

Velan has completed one training program, resulting in four new hires.  Five current employees also completed the program in order to train up for other jobs at the plant.  A second training program is underway now.

SkillTech has also designed a custom training program for Hazelett Strip Casting in Colchester.

The company designs and manufactures machines that help convert molten material into rolls of metal used to produce a wide array of products. The machines Hazelett makes weigh up to 120 tons.

Rick Hayden of Hazelett says the company always taught new employees the basic skills they needed to do a specific task.  The program designed for them by SkillTech, with its combination of on-the-job experience and classroom training is a more comprehensive approach.

“You could prove that they got the core competencies by tests, by quizzes,” says Hayden. “Then you could help if it fell apart.  Our main goal is to make sure we’re successful.”

Machinist apprentice Matt Sweetser says the training program is daunting.  Sweetser, who is 37, gave up his career as a heating and cooling technician to go to work for Hazelett three years ago.

“Being at the age that I’m at it’s scary starting over but they made it easy to transform over to a different career,” he says.

Sweetser and others are benefiting from a growing collaboration between manufacturers, academic institutions and economic development organizations.  Technical centers in St. Albans, Rutland and Bennington are also taking the Skilltech approach of designing training programs for individual companies. 

In other instances, like the Northeast Kingdom Manufacturing Training Program or a similar effort in the Upper Valley, a single training program is serving several manufacturers at once.

In many cases state money is helping with the costs.  The Vermont Training Program awards grants for training that meets certain requirements.  Beth Demers directs the program. She says even with state assistance, manufacturing training programs involve a big commitment on the part of the business and the employee.

“In general these are two to three year programs that require an immense amount of resources from the employee who is putting in their normal work hours in addition to class time and the employer who is paying for the training,” says Demers.

The number of manufacturing jobs in Vermont has declined by more than a third since the year 2000, but nearly 20 percent of the workforce is nearing retirement age.  Modest growth of existing manufacturers and planned development in areas like the Northeast Kingdom are also expected to fuel the continued demand for skilled workers.

“Everyone talks about manufacturing leaving the United States,” says Rick Hayden of Hazelett. 

Hayden says a lack of programs to teach skill machinists is partly due to a lack of interest in manufacturing careers.

“The kids aren’t interested because we think there are no jobs around.  That’s not true,” says Hayden.

According to 2011 figures the average annual wage for a manufacturing job in Vermont was $53,819, compared to an average of $40,284 for all jobs in Vermont.

There is a significant gender gap in manufacturing employment.  According to U.S. census figures, the workforce is 88.3 percent male and only 11.7 percent female.

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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