Teachers leave classrooms, learn more about local industries

October 28, 2015

Twenty area teachers left their classrooms for a day to tour two local industries where their students might find jobs in the future. 

This recent tour on Oct. 20 is part of the MIX — Modern Industry Exchange — program created by the Harvest Foundation and the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. (EDC). It showcases job opportunities available for young people in the area and the skills they will need to land those jobs.

Officials with both Alcoa Titanium & Engineered Products (formerly RTI International Metals) and Eastman mentioned skills such as basic computer training, reading, math and mastery of pre-employment tests.

They also stressed the need for soft skills — teamwork; attention to details; willingness and ability to continue learning; problem solving; flexibility; multi-tasking; and more.

Both companies require that applicants have high school diplomas or GED (General Educational Development) certificates.

Their message to the teachers was straightforward: Kids need to stay in school.


Eastman has two performance film sites in Henry County — the former Solutia operation in Fieldale, which it bought in 2012, and the former Commonwealth Laminating and Coating, which it bought last year, in the Patriot Centre at Beaver Creek industrial park.

In 2014, Eastman, a global specialty chemical company, had revenues of $9.5 billion and its fifth consecutive year of earnings growth. It has about 15,000 employees worldwide and about 200 at the Patriot Centre operation, according to Shawn Pace, site manager at the Patriot Center operation.

In all, Eastman has more than 700 employees in Martinsville - Henry County working in manufacturing, R&D, marketing, technical services, and support functions, according to Lisa Lyle of the EDC.

Locally, Eastman makes window film and paint protection film. It has the largest portion of the window film manufacturing industry, and that production is concentrated in Henry County, said Pace, who has worked for Eastman for 14 years and in Henry County since March.

Its window film customers include large automotive dealerships, local automotive window tinting companies, as well as residential and commercial installers throughout the world.  Working with such a diverse and regional customer base, Pace said, is a relatively new area for Eastman.

Locally, its processes include film dyeing, mixing, laminating, coating and rewinding.

Each day, every shift begins with a safety meeting, where safety issues are discussed and videos are shown. Throughout the plant there are safety posters and other reminders, including photographs of loved ones to remind employees “Why we work safe,” Pace said.

As he walked the teachers through the plant’s manufacturing processes and equipment, Pace explained the need for attention to details. For instance, when laminating film, the pieces being joined must be aligned as perfectly as possible. Also, employees follow a “recipe” for each roll of film as it goes through the processes, so employees must be able to follow directions, take accurate measurements and correct any problems, he said.

Other Eastman employees explained how the finished film is wound from large tubes onto smaller ones that are shipped from the plant, and how testing is done during the processes and afterward to ensure quality.

All Eastman employees are graded on results and behaviors, or how they treat people, Pace said.

The company also looks at whether an employee takes responsibility, has initiative and can identify what needs to be done, take action to do it and take part in constructive debates to resolve problems, he said.

However, many of those things are difficult to teach. “We hope they come with it,” Pace said.

Pace said the ability to listen, watch, absorb and remember directions — called workplace observation — is one of the most difficult for prospective employees. He illustrated his point with a short video on how to wash one’s hands at work, which was followed by a question about the sequence of the process. This example is similar to what potential employees would encounter during their pre-employment screening test.

Eastman welcomes high school graduates for employment in a variety of positions including machine operators, warehouse operators, quality technicians, manufacturing technologists, team managers and in business support roles. 

To further solidify the necessary skills for employment in advanced manufacturing, Patrick Henry Community College, New College Institute, the EDC and Eastman developed the Advanced Film Certification, a year-long program at the Center for Advanced Film Manufacturing.  Through this 28-credit program, students gain access to state-of-the-art equipment, hands-on training and knowledge of best film industry practices. 

“There is a lot of room for growth if you come in and apply yourself," Pace said.


Alcoa, a $21 billion company, bought RTI this year, bringing with it the hope that its vast resources will help the local operation grow, according to Human Resources Manager Glenn Wood.

In two large buildings at the site, titanium is pressed and ground. Wood said 75 percent of the local titanium production is for the aerospace industry, and its main customers are Boeing, Airbus and major aircraft companies worldwide.

In simple terms, the local plant starts with raw materials that are melted into an ingot, which is delivered to the Martinsville plant. The ingot, weighing about 22,000 pounds, is heated in a furnace at temperatures of 1,700 to 2,100 degrees. It then is then pressed into shapes by a forging press.

The surfaces of those pieces are ground in another part of the plant, and in some cases they may go back to the forging area for more processing. Some items then are sent to company facilities in Ohio for further finishing, reports stated.

An ingot is tracked at each step, and the processes it goes through must be exact, Wood said.

“If there was ever a failure (of an airplane) you’ve got to have a complete trace on it all the way back,” he said.

Like Eastman, Alcoa places value on safety, Wood said. He added that safety is not considered a priority because priorities change; values do not.

The work is not labor intensive, Wood said, noting that the local operation employs 28 people. For instance, it only takes one person to operate the grinder, he added.

Alcoa prefers to hire local residents, and creating a diverse work force is important to the company, he said.

Attracting and retaining young employees has been a challenge for the company, Wood said. As a result, the operation has a “seasoned staff” with an average age of 50, he said, adding that it looks for employees with industrial experience, maturity and a desire to work.

As a result, he said the absentee rate is less than 1 percent, employees come to work on time and they take care of each other, he said, calling them “quality individuals.”

Because the operation is relatively new to the area, most of its employees came from different backgrounds, including many in furniture and textile companies, and were trained on site. Sandra Mason of Martinsville has worked for Alcoa/RTI for three years. She previously worked at Tultex, Sara Lee Knit Products and Goodyear. Learning the operations at the titanium plant was “challenging,” she said, especially because employees are cross-trained and rotated among jobs.

During the teachers’ tour, Mason sat in the control room for the grinder where she was training another employee. They watched over several computer screens as well as the grinding operation going on in front of them.

Martinsville Middle School teacher Anne Stultz, the city schools’ 21st century programs coordinator who oversees the Martinsville Science, Engineering, Math & Aerospace Academy (SEMAA) program, brings her students to Alcoa/RTI, Wood said.

He said he talks with the students about what they are learning and tries to make them want to work at the local operation. “We impress on them that they have got to stay in school,” he added.

Students who pursue metallurgy and engineering “could have a job in Martinsville” after completing their schooling, Wood said.


As part of the MIX program, teachers toured the Patriot Centre Industrial Park and the neighboring Bowles Industrial Park. They went inside the area’s newest 95,500 sq. ft. shell building, which is being marketed by the EDC.

Lyle said the area is a “serious contender” in the highly competitive economic development field, thanks in part to the localities’ investments in attractive industrial parks, graded lots, and top quality buildings, as well as the educational opportunities offered by Patrick Henry Community College and the New College Institute.

Work force development is a key factor for companies looking to expand, she said, adding that the skills and quality of the local workforce is one of the first questions companies ask when considering an area.


Some teachers expressed surprise at what they saw on the company tours.

Diantha Williamson, a business teacher at Martinsville High School, said after touring Eastman that she was “pleasantly surprised. It was nothing like I thought it would be.” She had expected to see a dirty, dusty warehouse but instead it was clean, and safety was important, she said.

Another teacher was impressed with the explanation of an Eastman coating machine given by Josh Wilson, who has worked at the company for only 10 months.

Several teachers took note of the two companies’ emphasis on attention to detail and cooperation, though they noted that it is difficult to teach some things such as motivation.

Teresa Harkness, a business teacher with the Henry County Schools, said students need to learn to observe and focus on details, something she said young people sometimes have trouble with. Students also need to learn how to speak in front of others, and others need to learn the importance of getting to class on time, some teachers said.

Cynthia Finney, a special education teacher with Henry County, said she learned new things on the tour and wished students could visit the operations to do the same.

Some of the teachers said it will be a challenge to bring what they heard at Eastman and Alcoa/RTI into their classrooms. But there are commonalities between education and industry, one teacher noted, citing the need for integrity, teamwork and problem solving.

“We want the same things” from young people, the teacher said.

Another teacher noted that he saw few young people working in the two companies.

DeWitt House, program officer with the Harvest Foundation, responded that that there are young employees, but increasing their numbers is one goal of the MIX program. He echoed a comment by Wood that companies need young employees who can take over when older ones retire.

Henry County Administrator Tim Hall, in welcoming the teachers to the tour, commended the work they do and how that work is critical to building the local economy.

“You have the opportunity and responsibility to get us to where we want to be,” he said. “We’re in a good place and are going to be in a great place soon.”

The teachers will tour Bassett Furniture’s Design Center and Hooker Furniture’s Innovation Center in November.


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