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When Randy Johnson gives younger students tours of Cape Fear Community College’s engineering department these days, he makes sure they put their noses close to the machine oil.
“I tell them, ‘That’s the smell of money,’” the department’s chairman said to U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) Wednesday morning in a room loaded with manufacturing equipment at the school’s North Campus in Castle Hayne.
Manufacturing jobs–especially those with computerized componentry–are in, and some students building their skills as such are landing jobs before they even finish their training programs, officials at the community college told Hagan during her visit.
She said she knew the score; the trouble is, skilled or specialized workers aren’t in great enough number to satisfy employers’ demand.
“Employers should not be struggling to fill jobs when families are still struggling to put food on the table,” said Hagan, who was promoting her AMERICA Works Act, which she introduced with fellow Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) to try to address the skills gap.
The bill, added to the broader, pending Workforce Investment Act (WIA), seeks to create a national, industry recognized credentialing system for workers’ unique manufacturing skills.
“Workers that earn an industry recognized credential would have the peace of mind knowing that their credential would make them outstanding applicants for industry jobs in any state across the country,” said a summary from Hagan’s office. “Employers would benefit from knowing that workers are qualified for the job from the start.”
The senator noted its bipartisan backing and that it just received broad support in an 18-3 committee vote for WIA. She said Wednesday she hopes for a full floor vote soon for the broad act, the federal government’s primary programming mechanism for job development and workforce improvement.
WIA hasn’t seen reauthorization since it timed out 10 years ago; partisan differences in how to address workforce programs were among factors that have kept it from approval since. One provision some Democrats and employment groups fought against last year would have given states the decision power over who gets WIA services and how, which created worry that political ideologies, rather than local workforce needs, would guide the programming.
Asked Wednesday about its chances this time around, Hagan said the current bipartisan momentum around the AMERICA Works Act is a strong sign. She also pointed out the current push for WIA’s reauthorization from Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).
Since WIA’s last reauthorization, in 2003, the U.S. has undergone some dramatic jobs-related changes, Murray said at the end of July on the Senate floor, shortly before the act received its approval from the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), also a HELP member, was among the “no” votes for the act.
The currently proposed WIA headed to the Senate floor “makes changes to align workforce systems with regional economic development and labor markets,” said Murray. “This bill is also focused on using real-world data to measure the returns we get on workforce investments. And … getting good return on the federal dollars we invest is exactly what Americans are demanding.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, well beyond 12 million Americans are currently jobless. “Recent data show manufacturing companies cannot fill as many as 600,000 skilled positions,” said a press release from the sponsors of the AMERICA Works Act.
CFCC turning out trained workers
CFCC is billing itself a hub for a turnaround, with its North Campus Engineering Department marching hands-on students right into jobs, according to remarks from school officials Wednesday as they guided Hagan around their facilities and the machinery on which the students train.
David Hardin, spokesman for CFCC, said welding employers are clamoring so hard for skilled workers that they’re hiring welding-trained students before they even graduate.
“There’s just a huge demand,” Hardin said.
Rolling out in the soon-to-begin fall semester at CFCC is a new partnership with GE Aviation’s Castle Hayne manufacturing plant to make sure the school is producing the kind of workers the plant is trying to hire.
“We’ve been supporting GE for 30 years,” said Johnson, the engineering department’s chairman. “But currently, with the increase in the number of contracts they got, we’re working with GE more closely to try to establish more targeted training initiatives that will sort of parallel students with their needs and focus the training more on their needs.”
GE Aviation, a global company, announced in July it was expanding operations in North Carolina and was planning to create 242 jobs over the next five years. Thirty-five new positions are planned for the Castle Hayne site; a release from Gov. Pat McCrory’s office about the expansion said salaries would vary by position but come out to an average annual wage of nearly $48,000 plus benefits.
Roughly 600 workers are already employed at the Castle Hayne site, according to the company, which in joint statements with the governor said aviation is a big part of North Carolina’s future, and that education programs are being targeted–such as with CFCC–to capture the opportunities.
“We in North Carolina have the best community college system,” said Hagan on Wednesday. “In North Carolina you can get to a community college campus with about a 30-minute drive from all over the state.”
Her tour Wednesday included stops at CFCC’s electrical, welding and computer-integrated manufacturing vocational labs based at the Castle Hayne campus located at 4500 Blue Clay Road.
Click here to learn more about CFCC’s Engineering Technology Department and programs.