BUSINESS JOURNAL: Valley Schools Respond To Businesses Needs

BRCC, MTC Work To Match Training To Labor Demands

Posted: June 25, 2013

Daily News-Record

Khashayar Dashtpour (left) of Harrisonburg and Jason Dedrick of Crimora, both employees at The Hershey Co.’s chocolate factory in Stuarts Draft, work on a project during a mechanics class at Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave in June. Photo by Nikki Fox / DN-R
Joshua Hart (right) of Stuarts Draft helps classmate Ajoi Gibbons of Staunton while in mechanics class at Blue Ridge Community College in June. The two employees of the Hershey factory in Stuarts Draft are taking part in a program created through a partnership between the chocolate manufacturer and the Weyers Cave college. Photo by Nikki Fox / DN-R.
HARRISONBURG — WhiteWave Foods Co. announced in April that it would invest just under $70 million in its Mount Crawford plant.

The Bloomfield, Colo.-based company is adding three new product lines and more than doubling its warehouse space.

The project will translate to about three dozen new jobs, which may seem unusually small given the high-dollar value of the investment.

Robin Sullenberger, who heads up the regional economic development group Shenandoah Valley Partnership, says the phenomenon is becoming increasingly common, particularly in the manufacturing industry: Firms make big investments resulting in a seemingly low number of specialized jobs.

Part of the reason WhiteWave and other companies have expanded their operations in the Shenandoah Valley in recent years is because they know they’ve got a workforce that can meet their needs, Sullenberger said.

“We’ve responded in a number of ways to the needs of businesses,” he said, adding that part of that means educating children about the wide variety of jobs available in the area. “We’re working in this area all the way to the middle-school level.”

Blue Ridge Community College and Massanutten Technical Center both are active in vocational training and workforce development to help ensure students get the skills they need to be successful and businesses get the labor they rely on.

“What we’ve tried to do, especially in the last decade or so, is try to make sure we’re reaching out to the business community and to the extent possible create programs that directly meet their workforce needs,” said John Downey, president of BRCC.

One such initiative was a partnership with Bridgewater-based Dynamic Aviation that created a maintenance technology program approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The program, which started in 2007, is the only such one offered by a community college in Virginia.

“It is in direct response to the job opportunities that are available locally for graduates of that program,” Downey said. “That really started up a process of a number of degrees being considered and started.”

Another such program was a partnership with Hershey’s Stuarts Draft plant to develop a mechatronics curriculum. Mechatronics combines mechanics and electronics training.

“There’s great opportunity for people to either train or retrain in these areas, and there’s still plenty of jobs locally and more on the way,” Downey said.

At MTC, students are encouraged to learn a skill or trade, such as welding, even if they plan to go on to college after graduating high school, Director Marshall Price said.

Doing so, he said, provides an opportunity to work throughout college and something to fall back on should higher education not be a good fit.

“You can do both things,” he said. “You can get a skill and you can also get an advanced diploma, so if you want to go off to college, you can.”

Sandy Rinker, assistant director of adult programs at MTC, said there’s often a stigma associated with factory work. Parents and their children believe the work is for “grease monkeys” in dirty, loud factories working on a line, she said.

But the work is not what it used to be decades ago, Rinker said, and those workers are actually highly intelligent and skilled.

Electricians and engineers, for example, are needed at many factories in the area, she said.

As the workforce gets older, the challenge educators face is getting kids to realize what good opportunities are available to them, she said.

“We are not finding young people …  wanting to get into those fields,” she said. “It’s important to talk about this and let young people see how valuable these jobs are.”

One way, perhaps, to lure younger people toward the fields that employers need is the promise of employment.

Jenny Harvey, coordinator of career services at BRCC, said students have high success rates in entering the fields of science, technology, engineering and math — commonly known as STEM — and health care.

“If you do your research ahead of time …  the chances you’ll find employment,” she said, “are phenomenal.”
 
Contact Jeremy Hunt at 574-6273 or jhunt@dnronline.com



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