Paths to manufacturing jobs grow

UPDATING THE PATH A new collaboration between the Westerly Education Center, the R.I. Department of Labor and Training, the R.I. Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner and businesses across the state, with support from the Real Jobs Rhode Island initiative, is training the next generation of process technicians and chemical operators, positions needed in the brewing, medical research and consumer products industries, among others. The program requires a high school diploma or GED to begin, takes eight weeks of both classroom learning and hands-on training, 
and is free. Here, Clarke Richmond makes circuits to control fluids at the WEC. / PBN PHOTO/BRIAN MCDONALD

UPDATING THE PATH A new collaboration between the Westerly Education Center, the R.I. Department of Labor and Training, the R.I. Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner and businesses across the state, with support from the Real Jobs Rhode Island initiative, is training the next generation of process technicians and chemical operators, positions needed in the brewing, medical research and consumer products industries, among others. The program requires a high school diploma or GED to begin, takes eight weeks of both classroom learning and hands-on training, 
and is free. Here, Clarke Richmond makes circuits to control fluids at the WEC. / PBN PHOTO/BRIAN MCDONALD


Perhaps it was an extraordinary run as a major manufacturer in a number of industries, one that kept the state looking backward instead of forward.

As plausible as that narrative is, it really does not matter how we got to this point. Because there is no question, say employers, educators and government officials, that Rhode Island manufacturing has some catching up to do in terms of training.

A major issue: “We weren’t really sure what we were training for or where technology would take us,” said Barbara Jackson, executive director of We Make RI, based in Cranston.

Jackson, whose organization specializes in manufacturing apprenticeships and incumbent training, illustrates it this way:

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“A milling machine takes a widget clamped in, and we need to program the machine to move tools on the machine around the widget. The widget itself is stationary,” she said. “With a lathe [the widget turns] but the [machine] hands are stationary as it’s turning. It’s a completely different type of instruction. Milling and turning are different kinds of programming languages on different machines.”

Additionally, nowadays an employee who knows turning or milling may also be working with lasers, she said. “There is more involved. There are a lot more things to learn to be proficient.”

It is Jackson’s view that Rhode Island has been slow to adopt some of this technology, and reactionary in what subjects are taught in terms of manufacturing. As a state economy, we need to be training entry-level personnel but also folks who are already in manufacturing, she said. They need to move up to replace gaps left by those who are retiring.

Others in Rhode Island point to soft skills as being in demand, as well.

Oh yes, there are job openings. The state Department of Labor and Training’s list of fastest-growing occupations in the state – those with a growth rate of at least 10% – includes welders, solderers, electrical engineers and mechanical engineers, among many other manufacturing positions.

PLACE OF STRENGTH

The state is home to several large manufacturers: General Dynamics Electric Boat, Raytheon IDS, Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence and Taco Comfort Solutions, for example, making goods for the defense, tooling, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning markets.

According to the R.I. Commerce Corp., the state’s concentration of consumer goods makers is double the national average. The state is also No. 1 per capita in terms of industrial design firms, and in the top four states for industrial-design patents per capita.

Even more good news is that there is no risk of this technology replacing human beings who work in manufacturing anytime soon. Together, they yield great results.

“We get more work per human by using this automation,” said Jackson. “We’re ramping up the leverage point where a human being interacts. They need to know more. Wages are higher.”

Educational efforts strive to better marry this combination of student skills with technology. With that in mind, Community College of Rhode Island has four locations, online courses and two manufacturing labs.

Julian L. Alssid, vice president of the college’s Division of Workforce Partnerships, agrees with Jackson – there is room for improvement. Until a few years ago, CCRI’s workforce-development efforts were not as strategic as they are now.

Alssid said there’s been more awareness over the past two decades or so regarding the role community colleges can play in workforce development. It was part of elevating his position to a vice president’s role, he said. “We recognized the need to focus resources on aligning colleges with economic priorities,” he said, and to form teams with businesses, agencies, other higher-education institutions and employers to design, deliver and manage workforce programs.

One of these CCRI business partners is Electric Boat, which has a major facility in North Kingstown. In the last two years, more than 900 students have been trained in pipefitting and other tasks to build submarines, said Alssid, with a 97% employment rate upon completion.

“Because we weren’t really a major factor historically, we weren’t necessarily a go-to source for manufacturing training,” he said. “A lot of people said we weren’t responsive, so we’re proving it – making partners and employers happy.”

Spreading the word is part of the push now, said Alssid.

Growth in the pipeline : According to R.I. Department of Labor and Training data, in 2017 Rhode Island’s private-sector employment averaged 417,962, with an average annual wage of $50,929. Looking ahead, from 
2016 to 2026 manufacturers will need to have added 
a net 46,300 jobs to replace workers leaving positions 
(including retirees, although not exclusively so). 
 / Source: R.I. Department of Labor and Training

Growth in the pipeline: According to R.I. Department of Labor and Training data, in 2017 Rhode Island’s private-sector employment averaged 417,962, with an average annual wage of $50,929. Looking ahead, from 
2016 to 2026 manufacturers will need to have added 
a net 46,300 jobs to replace workers leaving positions 
(including retirees, although not exclusively so). 
 / Source: R.I. Department of Labor and Training

BENEFITS ALL AROUND

Dave Chenevert helps to spread the word about crucial connections between companies, schools and workers. The former owner of Swissline Precision Manufacturing Inc. and the executive director of Rhode Island Manufacturers Association, he applauds the work of agencies that make these links.

Manufacturing workforce-training programs, he said, don’t only benefit apprentices themselves, they boost companies and the economy overall.

Chenevert said manufacturers that don’t participate in such programs are missing out.

“When I meet with manufacturers, I explain the benefits. I tell them they will get quality training that is suited to their operations.” Chenevert cites the Work Immersion Program offered by the Governor’s Workforce Board as a great example of an effort to bridge the gap for job seekers without experience. The initiative looks to give high school or college graduates the training and experience they need to sell an employer on them, says a GWB statement. And the program offers money to companies to take on these workers temporarily.

“The employer can see if they are a good fit and get another percentage if they hire full time,” said Chenevert.

Commerce RI is another great resource for manufacturers in need of support, he said, as is Real Jobs Rhode Island.

Scott Jensen, director of DLT, said that the easiest way to describe Real Jobs RI is that it’s an administrative platform that allows people to collaborate. As of July, it had connected 3,757 people with new-hire training, with 3,132 employed, according to its website, across 16 industry sectors, including manufacturing.

Jensen pointed out that involving high schools in filling the manufacturing work gap is important.

“Part of the solution is making sure we expose kids to what opportunities exist in Rhode Island’s economy, so they can figure out what interests them,” he said. “A chance to try some industry-connected career exploration is a strong way to figure that out,” he said.

“Now, we isolate kids from the economy,” he said.

SOFT SKILLS

Beyond training for a specific occupation, there is also a need for “soft skills,” says Chenevert.

Soft skills involve things such as good presentation, the importance of being on time for work, not texting during a job interview and other factors.

Soft skills are what Ron D’Orio, director of operations with the Opportunity Industrialization Center of Rhode Island, offers. “Fortune 500 companies and small employers say, ‘Just give me people who show up and have a good work ethic,’ ” D’Orio said.

The Providence nonprofit addresses skills gaps and helps individuals build careers in fields like manufacturing, metalworking and marine trades.

Marine trades has always been the focus for the IYRS School of Technology & Trades in Newport.

President Jay Coogan said employers’ needs drive programming. The school also has programs in digital modeling and fabrication, composites technology, boat building and restoration, and marine systems.

“Boat building and restoration is usually our strongest in terms of enrollment,” he said, although it’s a longer program with more financial commitment.

Coogan notes that using wood as a material can feel “less like the future” to some students, a challenge in promoting the field.

While not all IYRS students get placements in jobs, they aren’t all looking for employment, either. Coogan said the school’s average student is in their 30s, some have college degrees, some are veterans reentering the workforce and some are retired.

“People come from all different walks of life,” he said. The school has had students ages 18 to 72, according to Coogan, all “looking for something more hands-on … I feel like we take on people willing to make a change.”

And IYRS still has great job outcomes, with 85% finding a job six months after graduation.

BEYOND ‘TRAINING’

Jackson said that the word “training” can have negative connotations for individuals who may not have been outstanding students. Deductive learning is an approach that can offer them success in manufacturing, even with dyslexia or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, she said. We Make RI trains on simulators for equipment used in manufacturing facilities, she said, offering a different method of learning.

“Young people with an interest in manufacturing can get the basics from these training programs: CCRI, Real Jobs RI, [William M. Davies, Jr. Career and Technical High School]” and others, said RIMA’s Chenevert.

“Employees start training at different levels, and it just takes time to fill that void. We’re getting there. There is no doubt in my mind.”

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