By Ken Christensen
Chris Napoleon expects his factory to grow, but there aren’t enough qualified workers to help him do it.
The U.S. manufacturing sector is recovering job losses from the recession and has grown every month since July 2009. But because young job seekers think manufacturing is a dead end, factory owners are struggling to feed their expanding firms with well-trained workers. Some manufacturers, like Napoleon, are coming up with their own solution: partnering with local schools to recruit and teach students about careers in manufacturing.
“What I’m trying to do is network with the parents, the teachers, and the kids at an early age,” said Napoleon, who founded Napoleon Engineering Services in southwest New York. “It starts at the middle school level.”
Napoleon’s factory produces bearings in Olean, a city of 15,000. He is one of the main employers who encourages students to enroll in the two-year, advanced machining program at Olean Technical Center, a trade school operated by the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES).
BOCES is a state organization that works with school districts to offer career and technical education.
Administrators discontinued the Olean program almost ten years ago because of low enrollment. But it was revamped for the 2009-2010 academic year after Dresser-Rand, one of Olean’s largest manufacturers, said it needed qualified workers. Olean’s first graduating class comprised two high school students and six adults.
Despite an economy characterized by high unemployment, all six adults were hired immediately after graduation at companies within five miles of the school. Both high school students went on to study manufacturing at Alfred State College.
It’s the program’s third year, 20 of 24 slots are filled, and most of the students are juniors and seniors in high school. The new program’s success would be impossible without support from local firms, said Paul Carmichael, the director of career and technical education for the local BOCES.
“We could have built a great program, but we probably wouldn’t have anybody in it,” he said.
Advocates and educators say young people’s interest in manufacturing waned over the past decades as industry downsized—12,000 people work in manufacturing today, as opposed to 20 million in 1979—and the news media widely reported lay-offs, shuttered plants and projections of further decline.
“We’ve probably been our own worst enemy in not linking with the schools earlier,” Napoleon said.
Napoleon now opens his doors and gives tours of his facility, where robotics and lasers move through a well-lit space with clean, white floors.
Machinists no longer use handwheels and levers to operate mills and lathes. They plug information into automated machines by applying trigonometry, algebra and coding. They must think three-dimensionally, understand the physics of metal, and make precise measurements based on blueprints.
“They don’t know what we do within our walls,” Napoleon said. “I call it shock and awe.”
Business owners are the best recruiters because when they say they have jobs, parents and students listen, said Jeff Teluk, the instructor of the program in Olean.
Another advantage of partnerships between manufacturing companies and schools is that they help schools stay ahead of industry trends. Based on Napoleon’s input, Carmichael recently purchased a cylindrical grinder, a machine that Napoleon’s employees now use.
While it’s beneficial for students to learn new technologies, it’s also expensive and a main reason these programs have to fight to stay afloat. The Olean program has spent a half-million dollars in state and federal funding so far.
Schools need to enroll a certain number of students to remain cost-effective, and some can’t find a way to do so.
Two hours away in Rochester, another BOCES location will offer its last precision manufacturing course in June. Joyce Cymber, the director of career and technical education for Rochester’s BOCES, said enrollment in the two-year program dipped below 10 students more than four years ago, and hasn’t improved.
For Cymber, Kodak’s filing for bankruptcy in January killed any hope that more students would turn out next year.
“People hear about the big plant closure,” said the deputy director of the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, James Wall. “They don’t hear about the thousands of small and medium-sized companies that are expanding.”