By Rich Griset, Chesterfield Observer
While both major candidates this election year have promised to bring back manufacturing jobs to the United States, they haven’t contended with a simple truth: China and Mexico aren’t the biggest job thieves these days. It’s the robots.
It’s true that labor-heavy industries like furniture and textile manufacturing have lost jobs to factories overseas. But research shows that automation is a much bigger factor than outsourcing in the loss of America’s factory jobs.
Manufacturing is actually flourishing in the United States. According to a recent Associated Press article, the country has lost more than 7 million factory jobs since 1979, while factory production has more than doubled in that same time period, minus raw materials and other costs. The same article held that even though General Motors employs roughly one-third of the 600,000 workers it had in the 1970s, it produces more trucks and cars than ever before.
But there is a segment of manufacturing employment that is thriving in the United States, and that’s advanced manufacturing. Robots may do the heavy-lifting and complicated fabrication of many goods, but someone has to program and operate them.
Demand is high locally – so much so that local companies are trying to promote the region, particularly the Interstate 95 South corridor, as the “Silicon Valley of advanced manufacturing” – that employers have joined up with Chesterfield County Public Schools’ Chesterfield Career and Technical Center and John Tyler Community College to create a pipeline of skilled workers. The pipeline, formally called the CCTC-JTCC Precision Machining Technology Dual Enrollment Program, started in the beginning of last school year and currently has eight first-year students and four second-year high school students participating.
“In talking with a lot of the employers in some of the smaller companies in the area, they’ve been very concerned,” says David Eshelman, director of Career and Technical Education for Chesterfield County Public Schools.
Now students can earn up to 37 college credits and seven different National Institute for Metalworking Skills certifications by the time they graduate high school. Every other day, students leave their home school to attend classes at either Chesterfield Tech Center location or John Tyler’s Chester campus. Some students even get hired during their final semester of high school and are able to work while attending John Tyler.
“The demand is high for them,” Eshelman says. “It’s exciting stuff.”
Melinda Miller, interim associate dean of engineering, business and public service at John Tyler, says that when a student completes high school they are nearly two-thirds of the way to an associate degree and one-third of the way to a precision machining certificate.
“It makes them very appealing for employers,” Miller says. “Advanced manufacturing has taken traditional manufacturing and really weaved in the IT technology that’s available now.”
Eshelman says most graduates from the program will make in the high $30,000s to low $40,000s upon graduating high school, and Miller says the average advanced manufacturing machinist makes $67,000 with the potential of making more than $100,000 with overtime.
“These are very viable careers, and you can make a very good living,” Miller says. “This is where the future is. Manufacturing is no longer the dark, dingy, ‘I’m going to be all greasy when I finish.’ It’s all computer-driven – that’s the advanced part – and you don’t need a four-year degree to do this. It’s highly technical.”
Plus, between Progressive Engineering Co., Enclos Corp., Richmond Tooling, Coesia Company’s G.D, BGB Technology in Colonial Heights and Rolls-Royce in Prince George County, there is plenty of demand locally for skilled workers.
“Everything from a water-bottling plant to Amazon needs these skills,” Miller says. “Some of these companies have found that taking it overseas, you can’t find the skill level. Some of them went where the labor was cheap, but for these advanced manufacturing jobs, you need a highly skilled workforce.”
Melvin Belcher, president and owner of Progressive Engineering in Chester, is one local employer who has reaped the benefits of the pipeline. Belcher’s company makes intricate gears, machine parts and does commercial heat treating.
“It’s kind of where the future is in manufacturing, and it allows customers to produce parts by a quicker method, a more quality method,” says Belcher of advanced manufacturing.
Progressive helps pay for the books and tuition for high school students in its apprenticeship program.
Thomas Dale High senior Saiph Jackson is in her second year with the program and says she was encouraged by her mother to enter the program and learn a trade.
“It’s good to have a skill set in this day and age,” says the 17-year-old. “I didn’t want to be one of those kids who gets out of college with a degree and no job with student debt.”
Jackson wants to finish getting her associate degree at John Tyler after she graduates high school, then transfer to either Virginia Commonwealth University or Virginia Tech to study manufacturing engineering or mechanical engineering.
In the meantime, she enjoys the CCPS program.
“The teachers are great,” Jackson says. “It’s a relaxed environment, but you have to be very safe and cautious, but it’s very fun. It’s basically like a field trip every day.”