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EDC's Workforce Development Committee focuses on skills gap in manufacturing

February 23, 2013|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com
  • Hagerstown Community College industrial technology and energy instructor Tony Valente teaches production practices that local manufacturers may use to improve their workforce.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

This is one in an occasional series of stories about findings and recommendations in the Hagerstown and Washington County Economic Development Strategic Plan.

Sunday’s story looks at information contained in the study about workforce development.

Coming Monday: Education



As a businessman, Dan Pheil has a real-world perspective on the need for, and shortage of, skilled workers.

“A skilled workforce is the gift that keeps on giving,” with better productivity, earnings, wages and economic development, said Pheil, who is chairman of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission and president of Cinetic Landis Corp., a manufacturer of precision machine tools for the automotive industry.

The EDC recently approved the economic development strategic plan commissioned on its behalf by the Hagerstown-Washington County Industrial Foundation, known as CHIEF. The Washington County Board of Commissioners on Feb. 19 adopted the plan and asked the EDC, which the report suggests as the lead economic development agency, to determine five priority projects. 

Those projects haven’t been identified, but Pheil noted he has a special interest in development of workers.

Workforce development is “kind of a hot button topic of mine,” Pheil said.

Over the past two years, his business has added about 75 positions, but it took about a year longer than planned to get them on board.

“Within the last month, actually, we got our skilled trades assembly workforce where we wanted it to be,” Pheil said. 

Those hires, he said, came from three main sources — people who worked for other companies; contract workers at Letterkenny Army Depot in Chambersburg, Pa., whose contracts had expired; and retrained workers.

If the demand for a certain skill set is high, the jobless rate among people with those skills is low and it can take more effort to recruit them, Pheil said. Many of the workers recruited by Cinetic Landis came from other companies, and word of mouth from those employees helped attract others, he said.

There are hundreds of thousands of unfilled manufacturing jobs in the nation, and it takes time to develop skilled workers to fill them, Pheil said. There might also be the outdated image of manufacturing as hot, dirty and unpleasant work, although Cinetic Landis is an air-conditioned work environment, he said.

“Probably, as manufacturers, we could do a better job of marketing ourselves,” Pheil said.

In other areas, the supply of mechanical engineers has been adequate, but there has been a shortage of electrical engineers, Pheil said.

It is ironic, Pheil said, that the county has a relatively high unemployment rate at the same time it has a shortage of skilled workers in some specialties. He said the need for skilled workers is local, statewide, national and even global.

“EDC’s Workforce Development Committee has focused primarily on the skills gap in the manufacturing field,” committee Chairman Bob Jeffers said in an e-mail. “That’s one of the areas we feel we can make the greatest initial impact in regards to bringing good jobs to Washington County.”

“The industrial skills gap is a problem everywhere, and we need to show prospective employers we have effective job-training programs in place to produce skilled workers,” said Jeffers, who is president of the Manpower Inc. franchise in Hagerstown, an employment services company that places workers with companies.


A skills gap

With so many baby boomers about to retire, the shortage of skilled labor in manufacturing likely will become more critical, Jeffers said.

“There is a shortage of skilled people in all of the most highly skilled disciplines, such as engineering and IT (Internet technology),” he said. The country has not produced enough people in those fields to fill the need, he said.

The skills gap, however, extends to many other trades locally, Jeffers said.

“Local manufacturers have difficulty filling jobs for welders, maintenance mechanics, skilled assemblers, technicians, drivers, etc.,” he said.

Most of those types of jobs require workers to have training beyond high school, according to Jeffers.

The economic development plan identified Hagerstown Regional Airport as a place to create jobs in aviation services and technology, and training is available there at the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics, though not all of its graduates end up in aviation, said Steven Sabold, the director of admissions for PIA’s four campuses.

“What we train for, most specifically, is to test for and obtain FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) airframe and powerplant certifications,” Sabold said. Aviation technicians are an aging segment of the workforce, with many in that field approaching retirement age, he said.

The disciplines taught at PIA include electronics, pneumatics, hydraulics, airframe maintenance, welding and more, Sabold said. A number of those skills are transferable to other trades, he said.

For the past two years, the company that has hired the most PIA graduates, not just from Hagerstown, but from the other campuses as well, has been a semiconductor manufacturer in Virginia, he said.


Some programs underutilized

There are training programs in the county that employers and those seeking work can take advantage of, but putting all the pieces of workforce development together is a challenge, said Ron Bowers, vice chairman of the EDC.

“If we’re already doing the right things, why does every business we talk to need employees?” asked Bowers. “If there’s something we can do better, why aren’t we doing it?”

The EDC can bring together the various parties involved in workforce development, but leading the effort is “not something a committee can do,” Bowers said.

“We need to be sitting down and see where that leadership comes from,” Bowers said.

The Workforce Development Committee has determined that many available training programs are underutilized, both by job seekers and employers, Jeffers said.

Job seekers have sought out less and less industrial training over the past few decades, even while manufacturing has declined, particularly during the recession, he said.

Industrial training is expensive, compared to training for white-collar jobs, because of the equipment needed, Jeffers said.

Pete Thomas, the executive director of the Western Maryland Consortium, agreed training programs are underutilized.

For example, when Rayloc in Hancock, Unilever in Hagerstown and other manufacturers closed down or downsized, the consortium sent out teams to help displaced workers get retraining or other services to help them return to the workforce, but only about one in four typically takes advantage of retraining, he said.

The consortium serves the three westernmost Maryland counties — Washington, Allegany and Garrett — and has programs for adults, displaced workers and youths, said Thomas, who is vice chairman of EDC’s Workforce Development Committee.

“We operate programs funded through the federal Workforce Investment Act,” Thomas said.


Linking people and training

The consortium is essentially a broker that links individuals to the training they desire, with funding following the individual, rather than the consortium funding specific training programs, he said.

The consortium works each year with about 400 people in the three-county area in its adult and displaced worker programs and about half of those are from Washington County, Thomas said. The programs serving at-risk youths and high school dropouts work with about 300 people in the region, he said.

Hagerstown Community College is the consortium’s primary provider for job-training programs, Thomas said.

HCC has more than 20 Workforce Investment Act occupational training programs, including administration of justice, alternative energy, nursing, pharmacy technician and mechanical engineering technology, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission, which, among other things, administers state financial aid programs.

There is strong participation at HCC in programs such as commercial driver training and health care occupations, including nursing and medical office personnel, Thomas said.

“That rings true in all three of our counties,” Thomas said.

Much of the interest in truck training has to do with high demand — people see it in the classified ads — while health care will continue to be a growing field as the country’s population ages, he said.

“Virtually everyone who goes through that program gets a job,” Gerald Haines, the director of Instruction at HCC, said of the Commercial Vehicle Training program at the college.

About 75 percent of the nurses working in Washington County were trained at HCC, and the numbers are similar for its radiologic technology program, college spokeswoman Beth Stull said.

The Industrial Technology and Trades program at HCC works to provide training for students as new technologies come on line, particularly as more processes become computerized, said Theresa Shank, the college’s dean of Continuing Education. The college also works with different businesses to determine their goals and needs for customized training programs, she said.

“Graduates from our Alternative Energy program are doing quite well at getting employment,” Stull said. That includes those who obtain solar photovoltaic installer certification, she said.

Making employers aware the training is available at HCC is one issue, Shank said. The college has a welding course, “but I’m not sure a lot of the local businesses know we offer that,” she said.

Sometimes, an employer might only need specialized training for a few workers and developing a small, limited program can be expensive, Shank said.


Baby boomers making a move

The aging population creates needs in other areas, Haines said.

“Right now, we’re seeing a lot of emphasis on supervisory skills,” Haines said.

Baby boomers, some of whom held onto jobs longer than anticipated because of the downturn in the economy, are getting ready to retire, which means new people are needed to fill managerial roles, he said.

Career programs at the college have advisory committees that include local industry experts who advise the college on keeping current on their employee skill requirements, Shank said.

Kaplan University in Hagerstown also offers half a dozen Workforce Investment Act programs from business administration to phlebotomist, said Christopher Motz, the president of Kaplan’s Maryland campuses.

“There is a great deal of demand in health information technology,” which also pays well, Motz said. That is because of a mandated transition to electronic record keeping in the health field, as well as increased need in the medical insurance field, he said.

The Washington County Public Schools Career Technology Education (CTE) program has a relationship with HCC, with representation on program advisory committees of the career programs, and collaborating to identify programs for which students can earn college credits while in high school, Schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said in an e-mail.


Partnering with business

The economic development strategic study recommended that the EDC work with HCC, the public schools and businesses in developing an “adopt-a-school” program in which businesses would provide mentoring, lectures, plant tours and other career-guiding services.

“Our career programs have business partner and advisory boards, and I meet three to four times a year with our trades and industry council,” Wilcox said, although the system does not have a program involving partnering with individual schools.

However, there are business partnerships, Wilcox said.

“Just recently, we have started a new partnership with Volvo — focused on robotics and we have met ... with Potomac Edison about needs they have for linemen and other production jobs,” Wilcox wrote.

Washington County Technical High School offers 17 career programs, Wilcox said. They range from automotive and construction trades to computer game design and animation, according to the school system.

Enrollment has increased substantially at Tech High in the past few years and the school system is looking for ways to improve and expand its offering at the technical high school, Wilcox said.

“The one lesson that we have had reinforced over and over again is that the skill requirements of employees” continue to change, grow and become more specialized, Thomas said. “People need to have defined skills and the formal training to prove it.”

Of the people who access training programs through the consortium, about 90 percent receive certifications, Thomas said.

“Perhaps the biggest problem we face in improving our workforce is getting the local workforce to recognize that there are great job opportunities available in Washington County, but that they require additional training and more commitment than ever before,” Jeffers said.


Symposiums, not survey

Employers expect a variety of skills and a commitment to quality work and look for people with problem-solving, math and communications skills, he said.

One suggestion in the economic development strategic plan was to survey businesses and industries to determine their workforce needs.

The Workforce Development Committee considered that “but after reviewing many similar surveys from other markets, we concluded that they all basically came to the same conclusions,” Jeffers said.

The committee instead plans to hold a series of small group symposiums to expose employers to the training facilities already here and discuss any training gaps they think should be addressed, he said.

The first symposium is to be held in June and will focus on manufacturing, Jeffers said.

At about the same time, the committee wants to have a symposium to inform people about job openings in the area and the training facilities that can assist them in getting the skills they need for those types of jobs, he said.


Strategic plan actions

The Economic Development Strategic Plan says the following actions are intended to prepare the Hagerstown-Washington County labor force for jobs in existing industries and jobs in identified economic clusters and target industries on which the future economy of the county will be based.


Strengthen mission/function

Strengthen the mission and function of the existing Workforce Development Committee of the EDC as a broadened Education and Workforce Development Committee focused  on the educational and Workforce needs of Washington County. The Committee would be responsible for developing, coordinating, and monitoring a workforce development strategy and ongoing program specific to the needs and interests of the county, working in partnership with the Western Maryland Consortium. The Committee may include representatives of local governments, the Western Maryland (Workforce) Consortium, Washington County Public Schools (WCPS), Hagerstown Community College (HCC), human resource officials with major or companies, and others.

Lead: Economic  Development Commission/Corporation.


Establish/expand partnerships

Establish or expand partnerships between the business community and educational system, including WCPS and HCC, to include in-class lectures and mentoring, guided plant tours, and "Adopt-a-School" programs.

Lead: Economic Development Commission/Corporation.

Develop/implement training, programs

Develop and implement workforce training activities and programs primarily for the following occupations and industries:

  • Operation and maintenance of industrial equipment — robotics equipment, machinery, industrial trucks, and assembly and conveyor systems. 
  • Precision machining and metalworking.
  • Computer and information technology, including computer systems and software design, Web design, broadband and satellite communications, cyber-security, and data processing.
  • Operation and maintenance of office and related equipment, including computers and communications equipment.
  • Design, drafting, and GIS occupations.
Lead: Economic Development Commission/Corporation.


Workforce survey

Design and conduct an employer-based Workforce survey (or series of surveys) to (1) determine experience in finding, hiring, and retaining skilled workers in the local and regional markets and (2) determine demands for workers having certain occupational skills and/or training assistance in the near future (1-5 years). Focus initial surveys on existing employers in the aircraft/aviation, advanced manufacturing, business/financial services, and information technology/services clusters.

Lead: Economic Development Commission/Corporation initially, transitioning to the Workforce Council.

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