Workforce program quickly responds to area skills gap

August 27, 2015

A Bristol, Va., employer has issued a warning about the lack of a skilled workforce in that region. A similar concern in 2013 led local officials to create the Center for Advanced Film Manufacturing in Henry County.

According to a June 27 article in the Bristol Herald Courier, Bristol Compressors President and CEO Edward Gniewek told the Bristol Chamber of Commerce board  that a lack of a skilled workforce in the region is a problem for the company.

“As the company grows, we will find a way to make compressors whether it's here in Bristol or someplace else. We're going to make compressors,"  Gniewek told the Bristol Herald Courier.

"Not having the workforce is not going to stop us, our preference is to build here in this facility," he said. "It appears that what is happening here is that the available labor force is diminishing rapidly in the region. It's not just Bristol, but the surrounding area as well. We reach out to about 40 miles for our workforce. Some of our people that work here drive upwards of an hour to get to work. I'm not just looking within the confines of Bristol for our workforce, but I'm reaching into the regional communities to try and find labor."

Bristol Compressors designs and manufactures hermetic compressors for residential and light commercial air conditioning, heat pump and refrigeration applications, the Herald Courier reported. It is one of that county's largest employers.

Recently, the company added 110 positions, but it needed 30 more laborers in June. By October the manufacturer is looking to add at least another 75 people, including general assemblers, machinists and skilled trades people such as electricians, according to the article.

In 2013, officials in Henry County and Martinsville heard a similar  concern from Eastman Chemical President Mark Costa. As Costa announced plans to invest $40 million into its Henry County operations, he noted that finding the right employees is critically important to an expanding company. He expressed confidence that the area would provide such workers.

A group consisting of employees with Eastman, Commonwealth Laminating and Coating (now an Eastman subsidiary), New College Institute, Patrick Henry Community College and the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. began working on that challenge.

The result was the announcement of the creation of the Center for Advanced Film Manufacturing (CAFM), a 28-credit program, less than a year later.

PHCC President Angeline Godwin has described the program in April 2014 as “a true public/private partnership where globally recognized companies, economic and community development and academic and workforce training institutions come together and create a one-of-a-kind training and job pathway in advanced films.”

Eastman’s Superintendent of Utilities Brian Miller, also speaking in April 2014, noted the speed with which the center was created and implemented.

“The amazing thing about the way this came together in Martinsville,” he said, “was you had a collaboration of some great leaders. Everybody was willing to work tirelessly and selflessly to make this happen in a very short period of time. This concept was developed in fall of last year, and in five short months, here we are today, publicly announcing the program, and we’re hoping to have students knocking on the door to sign up and register for the fall semester of 2014.”

Students take classes at PHCC and NCI and complete an internship through Eastman. After graduating from the program, students are guaranteed a job interview with Eastman.

This May, the program completed its first year. Twelve students completed the program and their internships and 11 of them were hired at Eastman.

While the program is designed to teach students the kills needed for film manufacturing at Eastman and Commonwealth Laminating, only 20 percent of the program is specifically geared toward film. The rest is applicable to all advanced manufacturing, officials have said

On Aug. 20, a $1 million, one-of-a-kind academic coater was unveiled for the advanced manufacturing center. The machine combines performance film coating, drying, lamination and web dynamics with academic features, and will be used by CAFM students as well as seminars, workshops and programs that are expected to draw participants from around the U.S. and beyond.

In May when the first anniversary of the program was marked, Eastman Human Resources Manager Charles Fraley praised the program.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled that we had a full class, and we hired ... 92 percent total out of the graduating class this past spring,” Fraley said. “We’d like to see the program grow. ... It’s a rare and interesting opportunity ... to interview with a premier employer in their community, but also get tips and inside information on how to win the interview, how to present yourself, how to bring your skills, capabilities and internship knowledge with you to the interview to try to get a position with the company that you want to work for. Not many organizations give you a road map on how to be successful,” he said.


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