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Upper Valley Manufacturers, Vermont Technical College Work to Address Skills Gap

  • James Short, of Springfield, Vt., left, and his mentor, Dave Neadeau, of Piermont, look at a gauge that Short was working on at North Hartland Tool Corp. last week. Short is an apprentice at the shop and participating in the new VTC training program. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    James Short, of Springfield, Vt., left, and his mentor, Dave Neadeau, of Piermont, look at a gauge that Short was working on at North Hartland Tool Corp. last week. Short is an apprentice at the shop and participating in the new VTC training program. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Apprentice Justin Smith, of Hartford, works on a milling machine at North Hartland Tool. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Apprentice Justin Smith, of Hartford, works on a milling machine at North Hartland Tool. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Apprentice James Short, of Springfield, Vt., works on a milling machine at North Hartland Tool Corp. on Friday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Apprentice James Short, of Springfield, Vt., works on a milling machine at North Hartland Tool Corp. on Friday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • John Wyatt, of Weathersfield, left, works with his mentor, Mike Dubreuil, of Dorchester, a tool designer at North Hartland Tools, on Friday. The two were working on a part for a turbine engine. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    John Wyatt, of Weathersfield, left, works with his mentor, Mike Dubreuil, of Dorchester, a tool designer at North Hartland Tools, on Friday. The two were working on a part for a turbine engine. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • James Short, of Springfield, Vt., left, and his mentor, Dave Neadeau, of Piermont, look at a gauge that Short was working on at North Hartland Tool Corp. last week. Short is an apprentice at the shop and participating in the new VTC training program. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Apprentice Justin Smith, of Hartford, works on a milling machine at North Hartland Tool. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Apprentice James Short, of Springfield, Vt., works on a milling machine at North Hartland Tool Corp. on Friday. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • John Wyatt, of Weathersfield, left, works with his mentor, Mike Dubreuil, of Dorchester, a tool designer at North Hartland Tools, on Friday. The two were working on a part for a turbine engine. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Upper Valley manufacturers of precision products are addressing a shortage of skilled workers by taking steps to train a new generation of machinists.

Three Vermont companies are working with the state, Green Mountain Economic Development Corp. and Vermont Technical College to develop a new apprentice program in advanced manufacturing. In Lebanon, Hypertherm is in the sixth year of its intensive in-house training program conducted under the certification of Claremont’s River Valley Community College.

Under both programs, workers in training are paid $11 to $13 an hour and receive college credit for their studies. The training also opens avenues for advancement, much higher pay and a college degree, company officials said last week.

The Vermont program began training new workers last week — and continuing the education of experienced employees at Bethel-based GW Plastics, North Hartland Tool Corp. and Concepts NREC, of White River Junction.

The program, which will at first be open only to the three companies’ employees, is fueled by a $12 million software donation from Siemens PLM Software and a grant of almost $37,000 from the Vermont Department of Labor.

Initially, a total of 15 employees drawn from the three companies will study design communications, manufacturing processes, metrology (the science of weights and measures) and inspection, tool geometry and metal cutting, computer-aided technology and more. The courses, which are taught at work-friendly times at VTC’s Hartford and Randolph campuses, are free. The students are paid while in class and can earn 27 college credit hours by completing the program, said Maureen Hebert, VTC’s director of continuing education and workforce development.

Once the initial program is completed, future classes will be opened to outside students, she said.

“This is sort of a beta program using this highly advanced software that will allow us to do a lot of things in the future. Through this collaboration, smaller companies that don’t have the resources to have this sort of program in-house will be able to have the best training in the country,” Hebert said.

Around 2005, Hypertherm officials began to see that the company’s growth was outstripping its ability to hire qualified workers. A couple of years later, the Hypertherm Technical Training Institute was up and running in its own building on Mount Support Road in Lebanon. In the last two years, the facility trained almost 100 students, Institute Leader Matt Burge said, adding that 90 percent of the students are making career changes and have never worked in manufacturing before.

Hyperthem made a $3 million investment to provide the training facility with the same machines as those used at company’s manufacturing facilities, Burge said. “We’re unique here because there’s no difference in the machines they use in training (and) the ones they’ll use on the job. By the end of nine weeks, they’re certified to operate the machines independently.”

Hypertherm has about 1,100 employees in the Upper Valley and has plans to add positions in the future.

A Nationwide Issue

The shortage of skilled manufacturing workers is not just a problem for Upper Valley firms.

Nationwide, about 5 percent of jobs in skilled production and production support are going unfilled because of the lack of capable workers, according to an August 2011 survey of 1,123 manufacturing executives from all 50 states conducted by Deloitte Consulting for the Manufacturing Institute.

“Translated to raw numbers, that means that as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled, a remarkable fact when the country is facing” a high unemployment rate, the survey’s authors said.

Respondents to the survey also said that the national education curriculum is not producing workers with the basic skills needed — a trend not likely to improve in the near future.

More recent research, conducted by the Boston Consulting Group last October, found somewhat rosier results, noting that U.S. manufacturers are short 80,000 to 100,000 skilled workers, or less than 8 percent of the country’s 1.4 million highly skilled manufacturing jobs.

However, an aging workforce and changes in global manufacturing, combined with production being brought back to this country from China, could create 2.5 million to 5 million U.S. jobs by the end of the decade, the study said.

The skills gap is unlikely to prevent a projected resurgence in U.S. manufacturing, but “investment in training and skills development needs to be stepped up, but there’s little reason the U.S. can’t remain on track for a manufacturing renaissance by 2020,” the consulting group’s spokesman said in a news release.

An Aging Local Workforce

Concepts NREC, which has about 90 employees, recently moved its relatively small precision manufacturing operation from Woburn, Mass., to the company’s headquarters in Wilder.

Many of the highly skilled workers in Massachusetts decided not to make the move to Vermont, and the company has had a difficult time filling all of its positions, said Jon Stearns, the director of human resources.

“We’re sort of a niche business (making aerospace products), and we don’t have a lot of manufacturing jobs, but we need certain types of skills that are difficult to find. We’ve hired some excellent people, but we still have jobs available, and trying to recruit nationally is very difficult.

“We need people with a lot of training and often when we find them, they don’t want to come here, primarily because of the rural nature of the Upper Valley. We love it here, but they don’t see it the same way. They’re also put off by the cold weather and the high cost of housing. Many of them may be coming here from states like Florida, California or Arizona, where their housing costs are much less or the weather much warmer,” he said.

North Hartland Tool Corp., which uses high-tech equipment to manufacture products for the aerospace industry, has 29 machinists and some of the company’s most-skilled workers are nearing retirement, said Lucy Lesperance, human resources manager.

“There is a tremendous need to find good workers right now, and we have an aging workforce. It’s very difficult to recruit good machinists from outside the Upper Valley, but it’s also a problem throughout the country. There just aren’t that many people out there with the skills we need who are willing to come here,” Lesperance said.

“It’s only going to get worse as people retire. We need to bring in and train younger workers who can learn from our older machinists.”

Lesperance is optimistic that the new training program with VTC will help meet the company’s immediate need for skilled workers, keep current employees up to date with the latest technology and aid in future recruiting.

“We’re hoping to add employees. We’re looking to expand,” she said.

GW Plastics, a global company specializing in precision injection molding, has about 400 employees in Vermont. In addition to its Bethel headquarters and plant, the company also operates a plant in South Royalton.

Its mold-making process requires digital technology and highly skilled workers, said Tim Holmes, vice president of engineering.

The company recently completed a $3 million expansion of its South Royalton plant, which created new jobs for trained workers, Holmes said, adding that like North Hartland Tool, GW Plastics also has an experienced — but graying — workforce.

“We need to train new mold-makers who can be groomed by our older experienced workers,” he said.

The company has job openings, but filling them has become more and more difficult, said Cathy Tempesta, the company’s human resources director.

“We think that this new program (with Vermont Tech) will help us train new workers on the latest technology. These are good jobs for anybody who is mechanically inclined, and the training is good for GW Plastics,” Tempesta said.

Warren Johnston can be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.