Training for new manufacturing skill requirements

A trainee files a piece of metal at a Siemens training center in Berlin, Germany. North Carolina community colleges work with local companies on which job skills to teach students.

Sarah Gardner: U.S. manufacturing has been on a see-saw this year. Up for the first five months, but it's fallen since June. Part of the problem? We're exporting less to a struggling Europe, and that showed up in trade deficit numbers out today.

Still, some American companies are opening -- and re-opening -- factories in the U.S. And many of the jobs require a whole new skills set -- something someone who worked in a factory five, maybe 10, years ago probably doesn't have.

In North Carolina, community colleges are trying to fix that. Marketplace's David Gura has the story.


David Gura: Since the economic downturn, many traditional manufacturers in North Carolina -- furniture makers and textile mills -- have closed down. So many of the unemployed here have turned to the state's 58 community colleges for help with retraining.

Gary Green is the president of Forsyth Tech, in Winston-Salem.

Gary Green: It's a challenge, but it is an opportunity for community colleges to step up at a time when people are really struggling in the job market. To step up and try to give them the skills they need to make the transition to what is, uh, the new economy.

In North Carolina, that economy centers on what's called "advanced manufacturing." And successful job-seekers need to know more about computers than assembly lines.

When I visited Forsyth Tech, the lobby was packed. Students were registering for classes. Enrollment is up 43 percent since 2006. Last year, almost 13,000 students took courses for credit. Eric Hanks was one of them. He's enrolled in the school's nanotechnology program after he lost his job three years ago. He worked in IT for more than a decade.

Eric Hanks: Everybody is a little bit different, has a little bit different circumstance. But all boils down to, we need retraining for a different field.

North Carolina's community colleges have been nimble. Administrators have worked with local companies, to make sure students learn skills that will make them more employable. Eric Hanks is hopeful he'll land a job. There are big research universities nearby -- magnets for high-tech companies. And just down Interstate 40, there is a brand-new center for nanoscience.

But outside North Carolina's cities, the picture changes. One hour west of Winston-Salem, rural Wilkes County is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and unemployment here is above 11 percent. Like Forsyth Tech, Wilkes Community College works with local companies. There just aren't as many of them here, as there are in Winston-Salem.

Lyndall Duvall heads Wilkes Community College's Applied Engineering Technologies Program.

Lyndall Duvall: I think our role is to make sure that, as the advanced manufacturing expands out, along the interstates, and back into the rural communities, is that we're ready when they get here, with a skilled workforce that can support those types of industry.

But the factories that are here still need workers who can run -- and repair -- new machines. John Souther used to work in furniture, doing what he calls "unskilled labor." Then, he was a long-haul trucked. After 11 years, he got laid off.

John Souther: You either went back to school or you couldn't find a job. There is still not a great abundance of jobs in Wilkes County.

Souther, like other students at Wilkes Community College, learn what Lyndell Duvall calls a "little bit of everything" to increase their odds of getting a job. John Souther did eventually get one, with Tyson Foods, maintaining equipment at a chicken processing plant. Tyson is the biggest employer around here. It's not alternative energy, the field Souther wants to work in, but it's a good job. And he says he couldn't have gotten it if he hadn't gone back to school.

In Wilkesboro, N.C., I'm David Gura for Marketplace.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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