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Reskilling the Workplace

by Fred D. Baldwin

The Shadyside plant of Mayflower Vehicle Systems, Inc., located in Appalachian Ohio, cuts and shapes metal to exacting specifications, mainly for the automotive industry. Across large areas of its shop floor, stacks of shining and gracefully curved steel and aluminum fenders, hoods, and other car and truck body parts suggest abstract metal sculptures in a museum of modern art.

To produce these parts to international quality standards, Mayflower must have highly skilled tool-and-die makers. At one point, it was hiring them out of Canada.

"You can't get them in this area," says Jim Easterling, Mayflower's human resources manager. "You can't buy them out of Detroit, either. That's why we're doing our training program."

Easterling is explaining his firm's participation in a program called FAIR, short for Fund for Appalachian Industrial Retraining. It's administered by the state department of development's Ohio Industrial Training Program (OITP). FAIR matches state funds equally with funds from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC); these combined state and federal funds are then used to pay not more than half (and often less) of the cost of customized training for manufacturers located in Appalachian Ohio.

Leveling the Playing Field

"We had to have a fair playing field," says Bernie Murphy Jr., bearing down hard on the key word. He's an OITP training coordinator who serves two large clusters of Appalachian counties (18 counties total) from an office in Cambridge. "We got sick and tired of our companies in eastern Ohio not being able to compete with companies from Cleveland and Columbus. Ten jobs to us are just as critical as 100 jobs somewhere else. Small companies with five or six or seven people to train don't require a lot of money, but they don't have it in their treasuries, either."

The original proposal for FAIR cited an analysis showing that only about 7 percent of Ohio's OITP funding was being spent in Appalachian Ohio although that area had 11 percent of the state's population and by far its highest concentrations of economic distress. Part of the problem was that funding formulas tended to favor firms adding jobs, rare for many of the "mature" industries in Appalachian counties.

During federal fiscal year 1996, FAIR made training grants to 26 companies. Reports from the companies indicate that the program enabled them to train 3,615 workers and made possible the creation of 260 new jobs and the retention of 322 existing ones. Altogether, in the last four fiscal years, FAIR has made training possible for over 14,200 workers, and companies give it credit for creating 3,164 new jobs and retaining 1,754.

A few samples from FAIR records in recent years illustrate the range of its training activities.

  • Titanium Metals Corporation, employing 280 steelworkers in Jefferson County, began a major effort to upgrade the skills of electrical and mechanical craftspeople with an accelerated training program for ten workers. FAIR contributed $13,000 of the $88,000 cost.
  • Athens County's Rocky Shoes and Boots, one of the few remaining American shoe manufacturers, used $20,000 in FAIR funds to offset a small part of the costs of training 297 then-current employees and 39 workers from layoff rosters. Training areas included computer-integrated systems.
  • Bi-Con Services, a small company (53 employees at the time of training) that makes piping, valves, and pressure assemblies for refineries, power plants, and chemical plants, used a FAIR grant of less than $3,000 to help cover the $25,000 cost of training 42 employees in team building and team problem solving. The training helped the company prepare for a joint venture operation in Russia and Ukraine.

FAIR is designed to be flexible. The choice of trainers and training format is up to the participating companies. They may send workers to a nearby community or technical college, they may bring in consultants, they may even send workers to plants in other countries. But FAIR's share of instructional costs is capped at half actual cost, or $20 per instructional hour, whichever is less.

For example, Mayflower, for its tool-and-die training, is working with Belmont Technical College. The college has created an accelerated program combining classroom work with on-the-job training for six Mayflower apprentice workers. Participants will earn college credits at well over twice the rate normally required for classroom work—more like four times the rate, actually, considering that working students are rarely able to take full course loads.

William Taylor, who lives in Bellaire, and Mark Tomlinson, who lives in Powhatan Point, are in the tool-and-die program, working toward associate's degrees in mechanical engineering. "We weld, we drill, we mill, and we turn things on lathes," says Taylor, describing their work. "Basically, we're your do-it-all metal shop. And we work hand-in-hand with journeymen. [This training] will mean a solid future for my family. You'll never go hungry in this field."

"I'll have a solid trade instead of just being a laborer," Tomlinson adds.

These two young men are obviously enthusiastic about upgrading their skills, but they're not alone in this. When Mayflower's managers surveyed almost a hundred workers to find out how many would be interested in more skills training, the managers expected to get affirmative replies from perhaps a dozen or so people. In fact, they got "yesses" from almost 90 percent of those surveyed.

Tour the Mayflower plant, which now has about 200 employees, and you can't miss the massive metal stamping machines punching through sheet metal like giant cookie-cutters, and the laser-driven cutting equipment. The items that so resemble avant-garde sculpture turn out to be based on retro fashion appeal: they're all-aluminum body parts being produced for Chrysler's new 1930s-style roadster, dubbed "the Prowler." The need for first-class machinists is easy to understand.

Creating Multiskilled Employees

Because there's so much sophisticated technology, you may not immediately notice the absence of something traditionally associated with factory floors: foremen, inspectors, or anyone easily identifiable as being in charge. The commitment of everyone to productivity and quality is critical to the bottom line, says Richard Fix, Mayflower's plant manager. As a result, some of the most important training involves upgrading what are sometimes called employees' "soft skills."

"What we want are multiskilled employees," Fix explains. "In the past you always had an inspector checking people's work. We've done away with that. We give responsibility to the people. It's the only way you'll develop employee skills. One of the first things I explain is that I didn't come here to make all the decisions. We've got 200 heads here. And I tell our people, if we don't take care of the customers, someone else will."

To increase the ability of Mayflower employees to work together effectively, Belmont Technical College in 1993 began to offer team concepts courses emphasizing communications and problem solving. The response was enthusiastic, according to Ann Sklut, training coordinator at the college.

"When they came to see us, they were champing at the bit," Sklut says. "The men and women in my classes say that even when they don't use these skills in the plant, they use them at home and in their churches."

From the perspective of those who know eastern Ohio well and remember its pre–Rust Belt days, FAIR represents a rediscovery of the axiom that any area's principal resource is its people.

"We had a skilled workforce around here," says Donald R. Myers, director of the Belmont County Department of Development. "Steel, glass, and coal were the major industries for 100 years. They constituted 60 percent of our employment until 1970. We had some of the best tool-and-die makers in the world."

The attrition of industrial capacity during the Rust Belt years cost the area heavily in human capital, but Myers says that a strong work ethic has survived. FAIR's investment in human skills builds upon that base and represents a critical investment in the region's future.

"Having worked in a factory," he adds, "I know what it's like to come home and be able to say that I make things like the Prowler and can use robotics. It's unbelievably important. It happens in Silicon Valley. It has to happen in Appalachia."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.