Training efforts assessed

December 16, 2012


Local educators think an advanced manufacturing program being developed by the New College Institute (NCI) in Martinsville will offer students a more rigorous education than a similar program being developed elsewhere in Southside.

Based on their impressions of both, NCI Executive Director William Wampler and Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) President Angeline Godwin said the institute’s program will be more suited for the needs of local industries and more innovative.

The Virginia Manufacturers Association announced Friday it is partnering with ECPI University to establish a Manufacturing Skills Institute at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center in South Boston.

Officials say the South Boston institute will help ensure there is a pipeline of workers with skills needed to meet current and future job requirements of companies that use advanced manufacturing technology.

In Martinsville, NCI is partnering with Virginia State University to create an advanced manufacturing program designed to attract more high-tech companies such as RTI International Metals, Commonwealth Laminating and Eastman Chemical (formerly CPFilms and later Solutia) to the area.

NCI, a state-funded institute, is working with Patrick Henry Community College to create a seamless transition for PHCC’s students into academic programs — including advanced manufacturing — that universities offer through NCI.

Wampler said the advanced manufacturing programs being developed in Martinsville and, to his understanding, South Boston will be geared toward needs of companies in their areas.

Manufacturers in Henry County-Martinsville area seem to have “much more specific” advanced skill needs for their workers than companies in the Halifax County-South Boston area, Wampler said based on his impressions.

Because it will be tailored to meet local companies needs, NCI’s advanced manufacturing courses will be more rigorous, he said, and “students taking these courses will be prepared” to go to work in any high-tech industry or transfer into manufacturing programs at universities, he said.

Compared to advanced manufacturing programs being developed at other higher education institutions and which she has studied, “NCI’s approach is very, very innovative,” Godwin said.

“It really has built in some flexibility” to meet individual companies’ needs, she said, whereas others seem to be based on a concept of “Hey, industry, come and see what we’ve got and figure out how to use it our way.”

Wampler and Godwin were limited in their knowledge of ECPI, a for-profit higher education institution with campuses in Virginia and the Carolinas.

Nonprofit institutions and their academic programs “undergo multiple levels of scrutiny” such as accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and oversight by local advisory boards that for-profit schools would find “very difficult ... to replicate,” Godwin said.

Still, Wampler said skill sets taught by NCI and the South Boston school “will overlap” and there could be opportunities for them to share resources.

In training people for modern industry jobs, “it’s just too expensive and too difficult for any one organization” to teach all of the needed skills, said Brett Vassey, the Virginia Manufacturers Association’s president and CEO.

“It is truly a public-private partnership and it’s everybody using their own resources and collaborating around a common set of goals,” he said.

Vassey said Virginia’s more than 5,000 manufacturers employ more than 230,000 people and contribute $34 billion to the gross state product.

In the past 20 years, industry has shed more than 43 percent of its total jobs — with higher percentages in Southside and southwest Virginia — but still creates about the same gross state product.

Industry has transitioned “from labor-intensive to technology-intensive, and it doesn’t even matter” the type of product that is being made, Vassey said.

“That has changed the workforce dramatically,” he said.

Paul Dockery, a business development specialist with ECPI, explained why manufacturing workers now need some type of education beyond high school.

“There’s a lot more automation, there’s a lot more computerized systems, there’s a lot more advanced technologies that the individuals working on the machines have to learn,” Dockery said. “It’s no longer just someone there turning a wrench several times a day ... it’s more technically advanced.”


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