She said too many educators don’t realize the need for hands-on workers such as machinists, welders, plumbers and electricians. Too many parents are focused on their children getting a college education, which is why we have millions of unfilled jobs requiring hands-on training. She recommended combining HEART and STEM to be more competitive as a country in the global economy.
Fortunately, there are more and more cities, regions, and states that have awakened to this problem and are doing something about it. Charleston, S.C. and the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina are among the problem-solving regions.
Machine Specialties Inc.
After visiting the Guilford Technical Community College aviation training center, my hosts took me to visit one of the companies involved in the apprenticeship program, Machine Specialties Inc., where we met with Rob and Tammy Simmons, president and executive vice president of the company.
Rob Simmons said, “The company was founded by Carlos Black in 1969 after he moved to the U.S. from Argentina where he had apprenticed as a machinist. I started in 1980, and we were primarily a small machine shop supporting the textile industry. In 1990, we expanded into screw machine parts. We got our first government contract in 1995. I became part owner in 1998, and we moved into a new building in 2003. We expanded into doing large parts like aircraft landing gear and added in-house anodizing and chem film. We bought this building in 2009 with all of the office equipment. We added a large laser cutting machine in 2009, and now have two lasers. Then, we bought two large multi-axis WFL machines to be able to machine titanium. We are open 24/7, but our weekend shift works three days. We are AS9100 certified for aerospace, ISO 9001 for commercial, and ISO 13485 for medical parts.
He added, “We realized that we had a problem because about 15% of our employees will be old enough to retire within the next five years. So, we need to train new workers to take their place.”
Tammy Simmons said, “We were one of the first six companies to work with Guilford County Schools in starting a new apprenticeship program in the fall of 2016 for those interested in the advanced manufacturing field. Students will undergo a 3-4 year program where they can receive an associate’s degree in Manufacturing Technology, a journeymen certificate as a machinist or welder, have their school paid for, and then end up with a manufacturing job.
“About 50 students, juniors and seniors, applied for the program, and 27 students were selected to start the program initially. This year we are up to 20 companies participating in the apprenticeship program. During the summer, the students took classes for six weeks and then worked full-time for six weeks.
“The students, who are seniors when they start the program, spend half the day at school and then the other half working at our company. The students who applied as seniors and then graduate, go to school one day a week at GTCC to pursue their associate’s degree in manufacturing technology and then spend four days working. GAP pays students hourly wage while on the job and when they sit in class at community college. I think it’s important to note that apprentices are paid while they are in class earning their degree because I don’t know of any other programs that do this. We also pay the students for their tuition and books while at GTCC.”
Then, we drove to Browns Summit, near Greensboro, to visit ABCO Automation, where we met with Brad Kemmerer, president and CEO, and Jack Walsh, executive vice president, Sales and Marketing. Kemmerer said, “We build custom automation equipment and are a FANUC and KUKA robot integrator. Our company was started in 1977 by Graham Ricks, but we converted to an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) in 1998. We started working with Coca Cola in the beginning to build electrical control systems and custom packaging equipment. We designed the system that McDonalds uses to pump the syrup into their restaurants.”
He explained, “In the late 1980s, we began to diversify our customer base by building custom equipment for a broader range of manufacturers. We began to go beyond packaging projects into manufacturing assembly, material handling, and inspection equipment. Now, our customer base is very diversified — all of the typical industries represented in North Carolina — aerospace, automotive, chemical, food & beverage, electronics, healthcare, pharmaceutical, tobacco. Most of our customers have 25-30 plants around the world, and the average price of a system is $1 million.”
When we heard about the Guilford Apprenticeship Partners (GAP) program, we hosted the meetings and helped with the high schools. We currently have four apprentice students learning the skills of an electrician, mechanic, fabricator and machinist. Two are first year apprentices and two are second year apprentices. We believe this is a win-win for all—we supplement our current manufacturing team, and the students gain paid, on-the-job experience while earning a college education.”
Redevelopment at Revolution Mill
By this time, it was late afternoon, so we headed back to Greensboro to enjoy dinner at Natty Green’s Kitchen + Market, which is a combination micro-brewery, farm-to-market restaurant, and store located in a redeveloped textile mill. Natty Green’s is in one of the buildings of Revolution Mill, a 45-acre historic textile campus that brings apartments, restaurants, events, history, and innovation together as the “Place of Choice to Live, Work and Create in Greensboro.”
Nick Piornack, business development manager, gave us a tour of two of the former textile mill buildings — one that has been re-purposed for offices and studio space, and the other as an apartment building. Between two of the apartment building is an outside event space where one of the finalists of The Voice was performing. There is one classic building yet to be redeveloped on the property.
From the website, I learned that Revolution Mill is “a historic textile mill campus encompassing the Revolution Mill and Olympic Mill sites, with adjacent land connected by North Buffalo Creek. Located just north of downtown Greensboro, Revolution began operations as the South’s first large flannel mill in 1899 and for decades anchored a thriving community of workers and craftspeople. The facility included over 640,000 feet of working space before the textile industry decline led to its closure in 1982. For the next few decades, limited sections of Revolution were renovated into office space, while other parts of the property fell into disuse and disrepair. In 2012 Self-Help assumed ownership of Revolution Mill and is completing the property’s transformation into a mixed-use development…Self-Help is a development credit union and lender headquartered in Durham, N.C.”
After the tour, we met with co-founder, Kayne Fisher, of Natty Green’s Kitchen + Market, who gave us a behind-the-scene tour of the restaurant. Fisher told us that he had dreamed of owning his own chop house and neighborhood market since childhood. So, when the opportunity to open a restaurant in the Carpenter’s Shop at Revolution Mill came around, his brain-child came to life. The market included a butcher’s counter where you could buy cuts of meat the restaurant used in its menu. As a non-beer drinker, I actually enjoyed tasting a beer that had chocolate in it. Besides the usual steak, chicken, hamburgers, and salads, the menu offered pork chops, lamb chops, and braised brisket, the latter being my choice. All of our diners were delicious.
At the end of a very fully day, it felt good to have seen the results of the redevelopment of an important industrial region with new industries, the re-purposing of old textile plants, and the creation of an apprenticeship program to foster the development of the next generation of manufacturing workers.