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Learning to Work Smarter

by Fred D. Baldwin

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Photo of welding student Katie Mattison

Shakespeare's Hamlet reflects on coping with an ominous future like this:
". . . if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all."

Educators and local leaders in Allegany County, New York, might have had similar thoughts a few years ago, but they showed none of Hamlet's indecisiveness. They were living in an area where no one had hired skilled workers for nearly two decades. It was easy enough to see trouble—in the form of a skilled labor shortage—coming, but it took foresight, and even courage, to develop programs for preventing it. That, however, is what they did, and those programs are beginning to score points with both students and employers.

Allegany County and its neighbors, the other "Southern Tier" counties of New York State, have a strong industrial tradition. Many of the firms in the area rode out the recession that began in the early 1980s, but it was tough going. Some companies laid off skilled workers; those that didn't were unable to hire new ones. All of them scrambled to remain competitive by investing in sophisticated new machinery. The result: an almost-20-year period during which no entry-level workers were hired, followed by a period when the skill levels needed for industrial jobs rose.

"It used to be," says Jerry Garmong, director of the Allegany County Employment and Training Center, "that industry could hire mechanically inclined people who'd worked on a farm. In a couple of months they could become productive machinists. Now the job requirements are more sophisticated."

By the mid 1990s, Garmong and other local planners realized that nearly half of the area's machinists were over 50 years old and could be expected to retire within a few years. And it seemed unlikely that they could be replaced with local hires.

That realization suggested two scenarios—one bad, the other worse. The first was that area manufacturing firms, when they began replacing skilled workers, would have to go outside the area to find them. The still-worse prospect was that those firms would not be able to find skilled workers at all. The specter of plant closings because of skilled labor shortages in an area of relatively high unemployment was frightening.

Starting in 1997, the Allegany County leadership responded to this challenge with a business-education-government partnership that developed a training program in high-skill manufacturing work. The program, which has received three Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) grants at the recommendation of the New York State Department of State, includes welding, machining, and computer-related technologies; its goal is to preserve the county's existing manufacturing base and promote the area's future growth.

Educational leadership for the coalition came from the Alfred State College of Technology, a part of the State University of New York system. Alfred State is a comprehensive college of technology with over 70 program offerings, from certification to bachelor's-degree programs. It has two campuses: the main campus in Alfred and the School of Vocational Technology campus in Wellsville.

A number of manufacturing firms have plants located in Allegany County or nearby areas. For example, Steuben County (just east of Allegany County) is known for glass manufacturing and for railroad shops. Cattaraugus County (west of Allegany) is home to Cutco Cutlery Corporation. In Allegany County itself, Alstom Power Air Preheater makes heat exchangers for coal-fired power plants. Dresser-Rand has plants in all three counties, including a 750-employee operation in Allegany County that makes turbines for power plants and government naval applications.

In Allegany County, Dresser-Rand provided strong private-sector leadership to the coalition. A number of other industrial partners participated actively, including large firms like the Gleason Corporation, Lincoln Electric, Hardinge, Alstom Power Air Preheater, and Kodak; and smaller companies like Rotating Machinery Technology.

With the help of grants from ARC and advice from its industrial partners, Alfred State created the Applied Technology Training Center, associated with the vocational technology campus in Wellsville. The center's initial offerings included both certification and associate's-degree programs in welding and machine-tool technology, including a focus on CNC skills. (CNC stands for "computer numerical control," meaning that the machinists control mills and lathes through programming, rather than by hand.) Students can be tested at the campus for certification by the American Welding Society and the National Institute for Metalworking Skills.

World-Class Facilities

The single largest initial contribution came from Dresser-Rand, which leased to Alfred State, for a dollar a year, laboratories configured as what Craig Clark, Alfred's dean of vocational technology, calls "world-class, full-production facilities" for machining and welding. These are fully equipped shop floors with the capacity to handle major projects, not just a collection of machines where students can turn out practice work. Clark notes that it's rare for vocational technology students to be able to work on all facets of a manufacturing project just as they would in industry. Alfred students perform "live" work, meaning work for area companies that provide expensive raw materials and pay for the labor involved.

"They [Dresser-Rand] have basically given us 12,000 square feet of a building," explains Steve Martinelli, chair of Alfred's computerized design and manufacturing department, where the machine-tool and welding programs reside. "They rewired the place and maintain the building for us. When we received a 6,000-pound machine, they were there to move it for us—and they wired it up. The week before that they moved and wired a 12,000-pound machine. When we ask, they do. It's great."

Further evidence of industry support for the Alfred State program came just this April when the Gleason Foundation, based in Rochester, awarded the program a grant of $1 million, payable over a five-year period, for upgrading equipment in the machine-tool program.

To understand why high-tech skills training is needed, visit Dresser-Rand's Wellsville operations. You'll see monster machines shaping blocks of steel into components whose flowing curves suggest abstract sculpture. Dale W. Beebee, vice president and general manager, explains that something like 30 percent of these machines are computer-controlled.

"We need to encourage our kids to stay in school and get some kind of skills set," Beebee says.

Executives from other area industries make similar comments.

"The days of the biggest, strongest job candidate doing a lot of manual labor are over," agrees David J. Koebelin, labor relations manager for the Alcas Corporation, parent company of Cutco. "We're shifting to people operating CNC and robotics that need a lot of programming."

The graduates of the Alfred State program will be able to do that and more. The first year of the machine-tool curriculum includes 90 hours of math, 90 hours of blueprint reading, and 720 hours of labs and hands-on training; the second year includes another 900 hours, primarily on CNC machines. Work is required to attain tolerances of 0.001 parts to the inch. Moreover, the experience of turning out "live" work for a specific customer is both more demanding and more satisfying than making only practice products that are scrapped after class.

As of this spring, the machine-tool and welding programs have produced over 40 graduates each, and there's nearly a full quota for next September's incoming freshman class.

Computer Technology Certifications

A third training program, this one involving computer technology, will be fully operational by the fall of 2001. This curriculum materialized because Alfred State's industry advisors said they wanted more vendor-specific certifications as proof that graduates would be proficient in software, network development, and technology service skills. During the fall of 2000, again with assistance from ARC, Alfred State purchased many of the tools and materials for the program. A number of instructors and students have completed certifications already, and about 130 students are enrolled in program coursework this spring.

"We had a lot of courses in place in computer programming and networking," Clark says, "but we'd never really moved into certification. This grant enables us to certify students in [applications and products] from Novell, Microsoft, and Cisco, and to provide CompTIA certification tests. We've become a testing center, so that our students can take all these certifications on either campus."

The two programs now fully operational already have what one instructor calls a "300-percent placement rate," meaning an average of three job offers per graduate. Typical starting salaries range from $12 to $15 per hour, plus benefits.

Richard Depue, professor of welding technology, says students' attitudes about jobs change 180 degrees between entrance and graduation. The first year, they're excited by reports, accurate enough, of high salaries in New York City, Florida, and California. By the end of the second year? "It's rare," Depue says, "that I have a student who wants to leave the area."

So far, not enough jobs have opened up in Allegany County and its adjoining Appalachian neighbors for all the program's graduates. Most graduates not placed locally have taken jobs as close to home as possible, mainly in Buffalo or Rochester, both approximately two hours away from Wellsville. Clark and his colleagues are busy letting small local firms know that skilled workers are becoming available, and the larger firms in the area anticipate hiring more Alfred graduates as their current workers retire.

"The people coming out of this program are wonderful candidates," Alcas's Koebelin says. "The president of our manufacturing division has told us that, even if we're not in a hiring mode, he wants us to meet these students. I know of no higher compliment we could pay the school and this program."

In addition to working with local employers, Clark and his staff are also meeting often with area public schools, parents, and young people to explain what skills training can mean for their own and the area's future. Prospective students and their parents often do not realize that welding and machining jobs are cleaner and safer than they were a generation or so ago. Even more important, students need to see these jobs as offering both high starting salaries and lifetime careers.

"Our students take courses in supervision, design, and inspection," Depue says. "Employers don't hire them to put on a helmet and weld all day. They hire them for the diverse backgrounds they have."

John Walchli, an Allegany County legislator who was a board member of the Southern Tier West Regional Planning and Development Board at the time the Alfred State program was being planned, believes that the creation of the skills training programs has already helped the county retain existing industry. He also thinks that changing young people's image of skilled trades will help many people change the mindset that they live in an area in decline.

"We've done an excellent job of moving people off public assistance into their first jobs," Walchli says. "Now we're taking the next steps."

Beebee, speaking from the Dresser-Rand perspective, makes it clear that he and his counterparts at other area firms are deeply committed to their communities. "I really do believe," he says, "that making a community a viable place to live is a three-legged stool—government, education, and industry working together."

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