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Workforce training

May 04, 2000|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Local businesses, educators team up to train potential employees with specialized skills

After about a decade of stability, Mack Trucks was back in hiring mode in late 1997.

The company had no problem getting applicants, said Greg Eckhart, supervisor of human resources.

But they lacked the computer and basic machining skills the engine-maker needed, Eckhart said.

The company looked first to the Washington County Career Studies Center, which was producing only 14 to 15 graduates with the needed skills each year, he said.

That wasn't going to come close to satisfying Mack's hiring needs as production grew and hundreds of older workers began retiring, Eckhart said.

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So Mack went to the Washington County Board of Education for help, he said.

The board responded by establishing a two-year program for high school juniors interested in manufacturing careers, Eckhart said.

The new Manufacturing Academy, based at Williamsport High School, gives students a mix of specialized course work and hands-on experience as interns in local plants, he said.

Mack and other local manufacturers have taken an active role in the program's development and will continue to be involved, Eckhart said.

Since October 1997, Mack has hired more than 200 workers and has developed a pool of qualified applicants , Eckhart said.

The hope is that the program will provide a source of qualified workers over the long haul, he said.

A close relationship

Mack's experience illustrates the close relationship that has developed between local employers and educators in recent years, said Jim A. Cannon, business and industry training coordinator at Hagerstown Community College, which also helps Mack train workers.

Employers say educators have tried to respond to their needs for both technical and basic skills and are doing an increasingly better job of it.

Educators say employers, desperate for workers in the tight labor market, are taking a more active role in the development of new programs and in providing students hands-on work opportunities.

"Both sides listen. I think that's what's important," said John Aulls, vice president for clinical support services at Washington County Health System and a member of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce's business-education partnerships committee.

High demand

Computer training at all levels is probably in highest demand by both employers and workers in Washington County, say those involved in workforce training.

As a result, local offerings have been increasing at a rapid rate, said Peter P. Thomas, executive director of the Hagerstown-based Western Maryland Consortium, which provides training to displaced and low-income workers.

There are many other areas - manufacturing, health care, hospitality, finance, commercial driving and customer service - where employer demand is fueling new training programs, Thomas said.

The growing printing industry along the Interstate 81 corridor is a prime example.

Last year, James Rumsey Vocational Technical Center and Shepherd College's Community and Technical College, working with area printing companies, started the Hedgesville, W.Va.-based Regional Printing Institute.

Washington County Technical High School, the former Career Studies Center, introduced a printing career program.

Hagerstown Community College is developing a curriculum for the printing industry, according to Cannon.

The college is also adding more programs aimed at the area's growing retail and hospitality industries, he said.

Business-Education partnerships

The evolution of the closer relationship between local employers and educators can be traced to the start of school-business partnerships in Washington County schools in the early 1980s.

Sandy Shepherd, now school and community outreach specialist for the Maryland Department of Education, was doing public relations for the local school system then and was designated to get the new program going.

The plan was to set up relationships between schools and businesses. Business people would get directly involved in schools by serving on committees, being mentors to students and providing other support, Shepherd said.

Meanwhile, schools were strongly encouraged to look at what they could give back to the businesses, she said.

Shepherd said the program raised both sides' awareness of the other's needs and led to the more cooperative relationship between business and education now.

Filling jobs

Workforce training - its availability and available funding - almost always comes up in discussions with potential new companies, said Timothy R. Troxell, assistant director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

With unemployment so low, everyone wants to know what the local unemployment rate is and whether you can fill their jobs, he said.

Maryland has a variety of training assistance programs designed to meet the needs of new and existing companies, Troxell said.

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