Keene consortium sows seeds for future manufacturing workforce

RCAM has been collaborating with businesses to determine their needs and then creating courses and training programs that will teach workers the skills that will fulfill those needs

The notion that American manufacturing is going the way of the wagon wheel is a tough sell for members of the Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing in Keene.

"There are three ways to grow wealth: you can grow it, mine it, or manufacture it," said Norm Fisk, director of the center. "We have been sold a bill of goods, in my opinion, and now even the politicians are starting to sing the right song, that we are going to be a service industry. Service industries do not generate wealth. Any group that you don't have a component of production that equals or exceeds the value of the consumption in that group, you're going to be transferring your wealth out of that group."

The Regional Center for Advanced Manufacturing — or RCAM, as it's known — is a consortium of the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce, Keene State College, the Keene School District's Community Education program, River Valley Community College and area manufacturing companies.

The goal of the group is to create and establish training opportunities for both potential and incumbent workers in the manufacturing sector. So far, this has meant collaborating with businesses to determine their needs and then creating courses and training programs that will teach workers the skills that will fulfill those needs.

It took about five years for the project to get off the ground, with its first class launched in 2011, said Victor Kissell, operations manager with Tidland Corp., a division of Maxcess International, who helped spearhead the project.

"We were putting an addition on our Keene facility," Kissell said. "And corporate at my level was saying, 'Are we going to be able to hire enough people to fill the spots that we have?' And it was like, 'Jeez, I don't know.' Because the labor pool is just not there."

Kissell's first objective was to go to the career center at the high school to try to encourage introduction of classes that could help provide the kind of employees the company needed.

While that worked very well, Kissell wasn't content to stop there.

"I carried the message all the way to the governor's office, saying, 'Here's a company that wants to grow in New Hampshire and we cannot because of this lack of skill level that we need'," Kissell said.

Business-education partnership

Ensuring that there is an adequate supply of skilled employees is a big deal in the Monadnock Region, since there are roughly 100 advanced manufacturing firms in the area, ranging in size from two people to 1,000, said Susan Newcomer, workforce development coordinator for the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce, who also helped develop the RCAM program.

"The success of it is having the chamber of commerce and local business leaders driving it," Kissell said. "Over the years, that's really been the gap in this whole problem. You know, industry has been training within for what they do, and some of the curriculums that were established years ago at the college and other places have fizzled away."

To that end, the linked levels of education includes high school preparatory courses, corporate-sponsored professional development classes and two-and four-year degree programs that give students and workers opportunities to continue to advance their education without loss of credit — and advance in their careers.

So far, the program also includes two certificate programs, Machine Operator I and II. The classes offer basic knowledge of machine operations, machine shop safety, precision measurement, blueprint reading, shop mathematics, and — in the higher-level course — advanced machining theory and application, as well as teamwork and problem-solving skills.

Students get hands-on experience, which this year will include a machine laboratory located in the new Technology Design and Safety Center building currently under construction on the Keene State College campus. The building is expected to open in September.

Much of the money to build the laboratory came from local businesses, Kissell said.The program also recently sponsored the Skills Through Apprenticeship and Retraining program, or STAR. This program, which is based on a similar training program at Hypertherm in Hanover and run by River Valley Community College, is a four-week, full-time intensive program.

Fisk explained that of the 200 people who showed up to take the class, 50 were identified as good candidates for jobs and interviewed by the five companies taking part. Of that group, 13 were hired and accepted into the class.

"Out of those 13, I believe 11 are still employed by the companies that hired them," Fisk said. "That's really good for incoming employees to have that percentage. The companies are generally quite enthusiastic about the program."

RCAM has also run two programs for the software company Solid Works, producing a total of 18 people eligible for Solid Works Associate certificates as well as two machinist classes that certified seven more people.

So far, the program is operating off seed money raised by the Keene Chamber. Fisk said within a year, the group hopes to grow the course offerings and business participation to a point where the program is financially sustainable.

Though public enthusiasm for manufacturing has waned over the past few years, the RCAM group is confident the program is a winner. To that end, Kissell and other members of the group have been touring middle and high schools to give younger students a peek at a potential future in manufacturing.

"Anybody that thinks they are going to turn this economy around without manufacturing is comparable to the fellow who wants to build the five-star restaurant without putting a kitchen in," Fisk said.

From Kissell's perspective, more and more businesses are having to locate factories where their customers are, which increasingly is in the U.S. This is due in large part, he said, to the cost of actually shipping from overseas.

Further, Newcomer said, working in a factory today is not the same as it was years ago.

"Up until recently, manufacturing had a pretty bad reputation," Newcomer said. "Because manufacturing was dirty, smelly, greasy, long hours, a dangerous place. It's not that way anymore. And I think if you were to tour any of our manufacturing companies, you would be blown away by how organized, clean — refreshing in many ways — that a lot of these places are."

Further, RCAM officials said, the jobs have benefits and can be well paying — wages range from $10 to $15 at the entry level to $18 to $42 or greater per hour at the higher levels. There's also, again with training, a lot of opportunities to actually move up in a company and rather quickly, they said.

To some extent, they've also had to work to get the word out to the manufacturing companies in the area, of which only about six have participated. But Fisk said he hopes to increase participation by manufacturers by 50 percent each year.

"From my own experience, we started off with just a couple of people," Kissell said. "And as we've progressed with it and news has gotten out about what's going on, all of sudden now we have a whole group of people. It's kind of like the Noah's Ark thing: If you build the ship, they will come."

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Skills Through Apprenticeship and Retraining program is run by RCAM. RCAM sponsors the program, which is run by River Valley Community College.)

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