Ellis Baker: Training opportunities and the changing face of manufacturing

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Editor's note: This commentary is one in a series published by the Banner in connection with National Manufacturing Day, Oct. 4.

By Ellis Baker     

The town of Bennington has been going through some positive changes lately. One of these changes is a series of classes and an apprenticeship program to support manufacturing companies and employees. Local manufacturing companies are working with the Southwest Vermont Career Development Center and Community College of Vermont to make manufacturing more interesting to high schoolers as well as train high schoolers and adults from different jobs or industries to support manufacturing companies. This makes the companies feel more confident about hiring an employee and less worried about turn over rate and a retiring workforce. However, there are still challenges local manufacturers have to overcome.

Finding an employee is challenging no matter what industry. Its increasingly harder with the high turnover rate and changes in customer orders seen in manufacturing. Turnover rate refers to how quickly employees leave and need to be replaced. This makes companies cautious about hiring new employees and instead turn to temp agencies to find workers. Employees can receive inconsistent pay because of the time gap in between temp jobs and having to frequently "start over." The company also suffers with workers constantly having to learn new skills and retake basic training. The CDC and CCV programs give attendees credentials for job opportunities and opportunity for current employees to ascend in the company. Many companies in the area need skilled employees, and that's what these programs are perfect for. That's what happened in my case when I started working for Hale Mountain Research.

My manufacturing experience started at Hale Mountain Research (HMR) three years ago. I walked into a small building on East Road in Bennington and spoke to James Salerno about applying for a job. I was told that he was looking for help and he agreed to put me on a two-week trial doing 3D printing work for a medical project. Right off the bat I was thrown into something I had no previous knowledge about. 3D printing had a learning curve, but once I got over it was smooth sailing. We finished the project and I ended up securing a job at HMR.

After other various 3D printing projects I branched out in a different area of the company, which is composites design and manufacturing. We received a contract from NSK Steering Systems America Inc. to build an environmental testing chamber. This was a 60-cubic-foot box with working doors that had 2-inch thick insulated walls. Every structural component was made from fiberglass to be able to handle low and high temperatures. It was coated with a moisture and temperature resistant rubbery material to add durability. The chamber took about six months to create. This was my first hands-on project that involved serious deadlines and setbacks. Those six months taught me a great deal of important lessons about working in the manufacturing industry. We finished the chamber and delivered it to the customer with minimal issue. We were even able to incorporate 3D printing into the project by making air duct fittings so the chamber can be filled with the desired temperature air. The NSK project was a huge learning experience and it made manufacturing have a lasting impression on me.

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After participating in some large projects at Hale Mountain Research I was convinced that I wanted to stay at the company. A new business venture arose for Hale Mountain Research when there was an opportunity to create a machine shop in the Bennington area. This meant moving into a larger building on Main Street and calling that our new home. That's when I started learning computer aided design and started training through the Career Development Center to learn how to run CNC machines, which use computers and robotics to machine parts. After completing the first class, I completed two more that involved blueprint reading and GD&T, an advanced way to measure and describe parts and shapes. With certificates in these categories I have more value as an employee and HMR can tackle bigger projects.

If more people start attending these programs, they will be more likely to get higher paying opportunities around the area. These programs also look good in general when a new company is considering moving to the area. They see these successful programs and it gives them confidence in setting up in a new location. Companies that are already located here can start sending current employees to get training for a position they need to fill instead of using an outside hire. Training programs like these have low enrollment costs- usually paid for by the employer or a dept. of labor grant, and are short (30 hours spread across five to 10 weeks). These programs can improve the future of employees and improve the future of companies they will work for.

The reason for me personally taking these programs is because of future opportunities at Polar Composite. Polar Composite is a joint venture formed by HMR and a company in Connecticut called Polar Corp. Together they want to bring a machine shop to Bennington in order to fill future orders from a client. Polar Composite will need future employees that are hard working and knowledgeable and with the help of these training programs that is more than possible.

In the past, training programs like these have been used but didn't last very long due to lack of attendance. This is why I am writing this article today. People need to see from a perspective on the inside that these are beneficial to the employee and not just the employer. I was asked to write this article because I have taken many of the courses and I have seen first hand the improvements to my knowledge of the subjects. These programs only have a positive impact on someone's resume and shows companies that the Bennington area can supply manufacturing employees.

There is a community goal in Bennington to have more and more people move here or stay here. There have been many efforts made to achieve this goal such as the Putnam Block, remote worker grant programs, and the Stay to Stay program. There are never single answers to social issues, but these programs are a step in the right direction and allow both the employee and employer to benefit.

If you or someone you know is interested in the Southwest Vermont Career Development Center and/or the Community College of Vermont programs, please contact them for more information about how to enroll. Southwest Vermont Career Development Center: 802-447-0220; Community College of Vermont: 802-447-2361.

Ellis Baker works for Hale Mountain Research.


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