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Mettle to Metal

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The metals industry, with help from PCC and partners, is building a system to train workers and meet community needs.

by Susan Hereford

Photo: Nigel Richie, 21, practices welding at Northwest Pipe in a five-week program to prepare him for a job in the metals industry.

There is opportunity in the metals industry. In the Portland-metro area, every fourth job in manufacturing is in metals.

But at the same time, there has been a decrease in the number of qualified applicants for entry-level jobs and changes in the workplace that leave many without the needed skills to do their jobs. A recent study done by the Oregon Advanced Technology Center estimates that 5,000 new employees will be needed in the metro area for the metals industry over the next five years.

"The industry is moving to a higher level of skill. For example, many will need to learn computer numeric control technology," says Nancy Chally, Portland Community College workforce development manager.

Don Leighton, general manager of Voith Sulzer, a multi-billion international paper mill manufacturing and repair company, is also concerned. He bemoans the lack of a formal apprenticeship system for machinists compared to the structured arrangement in many European countries, and explains why his company contracted directly with PCC. "It’s critical and we can’t get the people. That’s why we’re stepping up and doing the training."

According to Chally, efforts are underway in the tri-county area to energize the industry, much of it involving recruitment from parts of North and Northeast Portland and outer Southeast Portland, traditional poverty pockets of the city.

The initiative involves alliances between industry, community-based groups, the city economic development agency, the Portland Development Commission and the college. PCC’s workforce training programs put the college in the center of local economic development efforts and are pivotal to the region’s goal of training and retraining workers cost effectively — many of them unemployed or underemployed.

One recently completed pilot project involved Northwest Pipe and Oregon Steel. The two companies signed up last fall following a pow wow for metals employers held at the Northeast Workforce Center by the Portland Development Commission. Key speaker: Jim Harper from Wacker Siltronic. Although Harper represents an unrelated industry, semiconductor manufacturing, he believed he had a valuable message and wanted to spread the good news.

His company has been involved with PCC and PDC in a successful training program since June 1995 that has delivered impressive results: hundreds of much needed new employees for Wacker at a greatly reduced turnover rate and with reduced training costs. The project has earned national attention. Harper and the PDC thought the collaborative approach could work for metals manufacturers, too.

Lynette Hanson, human resource manager for Northwest Pipe, is clear about her company’s dilemma. "We’ve had a shortage of applicants, qualified applicants, to fill the positions," she says of the involvement with the pilot metals training project.

Hanson, a member of the Oregon Metals Industry consortium, worked with PCC, the Northeast Workforce Center, and the Portland Development Commission to identify and recruit potential employees, create a skills assessment, create and test curriculum that was customized for the company, and train new employees.

PCC instructors taught on site at Northwest Pipe and at Oregon Steel, another industry partner. The new employees were taught grinding, metal cutting, reading, writing, shop math, metallurgy, safety, and physical conditioning. Funding came from the Northeast Workforce Center through a Ford Foundation grant, the PDC and participating companies.

According to Hanson, the instructors in the five-week training project were "Great. Sue Ann Jackson, who was also involved in the Wacker Siltronic training, is very good. She relates well with the pool we have and makes it easy for them. She understands how to motivate."

The training goals were modest with this first project — to prepare 10 to enter the metals industry. Seven completed the program.

One of the new hires at Northwest Pipe, Nigel Richie, liked the set-up. "I’m going to school on the job. I’m practicing my welding today," says Richie, pleased that the company was making an investment in him. Unemployed before getting hired at Northwest Pipe, Richie and the other trainees received an $8.50 hourly wage, plus benefits, which increased to $9 hour following completion of the training.

The pilot project was completed in March and partners hope it is round one of a much larger system for metals companies in the Portland-metro area. They began to see what an overall regional metals training system might look like. Based on that, the partners presented a strategy to the Metro Regional Strategies Board to expand on the pilot and continue the training in the North and Northeast, and also start up training in outer Southeast Portland. The strategies board liked what they saw and in April funded the plan.

"Businesses are being recruited as we speak," says Chally of the outer southeast effort which involves the community-based organization, Outer Southeast Workforce System.

Other companies are contracting with PCC directly. At Voith Sulzer, the company needed to put together a new workforce following a nasty labor dispute with the union.

General manager Don Leighton says many of the new employees had limited skills and math capabilities. A decision was made to teach them and the company looked to PCC to develop a product that would work for a diverse group of new hires.

"Some of the guys were not threatened by trigonometry, others wanted to run for the door when they heard the word," says Leighton.

In addition to math, the new employees took blueprint reading. The college did skills assessments of the employees, then custom-designed the program, taught the classes, and trained others at the company to take over with the presentations after they left.

"Anything we presented, they helped us put together," says Leighton.

Leighton, like Hanson of Northwest Pipe, said the rapport the instructor builds with the trainees and the ability to boost confidence is critical to the overall success of the training.

Metals training is also underway at the shipyards. At Cascade General, a ship repair company, the workforce needed to upgrade their skills. Both the company and the union knew that employees needed to become more literate, more skilled. Eventually, they hope to offer employees certificates or degrees through courses designed by PCC.

In Washington County, the metals companies’ consortium takes a different bent. The work is more computer-aided, instead of manual, and employees must have the necessary skills.

At PCC campuses, several new approaches to prepare workers for the industry are underway. One is the Machine Technology program at Sylvania which has remade itself to be more flexible and attractive to potential students, including an open-entry, open-exit program, longer hours of operation, and up-to-date equipment.

"We’re not taking the training off the shelf," explains Paul Wild, PCC workforce training manager. "It is industry driven and it moves quickly. Every single company that gets involved has slightly different needs, so the curriculum must change to meet those needs."

Universal principals were developed in the Wacker training partnership and are now being applied to the metals training:

  • the training is a reflection of the company culture;
  • all training is done on company time; both for existing employees and new employees;
  • basic skills classes, such as writing, applied math, communications, team building and problem solving are combined with technical training specific to the industry;
  • the training is designed by company staff and PCC faculty who then teach the classes side-by-side. Part of the training is done on the company site, and the rest done at PCC campuses or high school locations.

Down the road, the vision is to create training centers. Nancy Chally outlines the thinking. "The training system is in place, and there is hope that with this strategic alliance of metals companies there will be several centers where companies buy seats for their new employees."

Jim Kosel, shipping supervisor at Northwest Pipe, sums up the advantages of a comprehensive training program. "It’s beneficial to the community, to the students and to the company."

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