Published December 26, 2005

Gussying up the old lady


As communities in the Blue Ridge Region position themselves in the 21st Century economy, perhaps their unique strengths can best be summed up in a decidedly unfuturistic word: manufacturing.

"At first glance, it's not the sector people want to play up," says Jay Foster, president of SoftSolutions, a Roanoke software company that focuses specifically on manufacturing companies. "There are horror stories about General Motors and Valleydale [layoffs], furniture and textile losses, jobs going to China. Why in the world would you want to say that's our future?"

Because, he says, manufacturing-especially high-tech manufacturing-is where wealth is created.

But what about those horror stories? "Manufacturing is alive and well," says Joe Robinson, Lynchburg-based international trade manager with the Virginia Economic Development Partnership (VEDP). "Manufacturing has been severely hurt by NAFTA [but] the companies that were hurt are gone. [And] the ones that are left are thriving, and will continue to thrive." He has observed that successful companies are those that are more integrated (e.g., better communication between departments), globally focused, committed to training, and have more sophisticated supply chain operations.

China syndrome

What about the threat from China? Says John Richardson, vice president of Plastics One in Roanoke, "We never can compete with pricing, but we bring superior quality and customer service. In medical devices especially, the emphasis has to be on quality."

Says Chuck Warren, president of Wegmann USA, a defense contractor in Lynchburg, "I always hear of a lot of people looking for someone to manufacture something for them. [As to people with] general manufacturing capabilities-none of [them] have any problems getting work."

Stan Shoun, vice president of workforce development and continuing education for Central Virginia Community College (CVCC), sums it up succinctly. "People claim that China is taking all the jobs. No-China is taking all the labor intensive jobs."

Foster believes the region needs to strengthen and trumpet its manufacturing heritage. He says NewVa, for example, already has a critical mass of world-class manufacturers, which in turn have strong collaborative relationships with Virginia Tech. He believes that this area has the potential to be one of the best places "on the planet" for high-tech manufacturing. "All the right ingredients are here. We need leadership and vision to get this region organized."

Indeed, a look at a November 2005 Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows that jobs in the manufacturing sector represent over 18 percent of all jobs in the Lynchburg MSA, almost 20 percent in the Blacksburg MSA (which includes the Volvo plant), and over 11 percent in the Roanoke MSA. This compares to eight percent in both the Virginia Beach MSA (a manufacturing powerhouse) and the state as a whole.

What could the region's high percentages suggest to outsiders looking in? Rob McClintock, VEDP director of research, comes up with an impressive list:

* A skilled workforce;

* Related R&D; activities;

* A competitive cost environment (utility costs, payroll taxes);

* Advantageous logistics (proximity to I-81);

* Favorable labor (right-to-work) environment.

McClintock has observed the economic effect of these percentages. He says that over the last three years, 73 percent of the Lynchburg MSA's expansions or new businesses (tracked by VEDP) have been in manufacturing. For the Roanoke MSA, it was 66 percent.

Labor shortages

While many say manufacturing is a promising sector, it has many issues to overcome. Shoun describes a perfect storm leading up to one of manufacturing's biggest problems-a growing shortage of skilled workers. "With the higher than normal demand for computer and health care workers, military needs, and a strong economy, the [labor] numbers don't add up."

Paradoxically, U.Va.'s Cooper Center cites a 2004 study that showed that although "nearly one in five American workers was laid off from work between 2001 and 2004 . . . Some 57 percent of companies with 100 or more employees said it was hard to find workers with the required skills."

Indeed, local employers are feeling the pinch now. Foster recently hosted a regional manufacturing leadership roundtable which also serves as a focus group for his software company. "There was unanimous agreement that the skilled labor issue is . . . a concern," he says.

Shoun adds that high schools are set up as college feeder systems, due to the "Baby Boomer paradigm" that says that white collar jobs should be the career paths of choice. "We've gotten away from producing skilled manufacturing labor." In order to paint a sexier picture of manufacturing, the Virginia Manufacturers Association embarked on a PR campaign in 2005 to improve the sector's image. According to Joe Croce, vice president of the Virginia Manufacturers Association, the organization is currently developing a video aimed at youth, called, "See cool things made."

Small firms

Small manufacturers, which comprise the "vast majority" of manufacturers in Virginia, have additional challenges, says Bob Taylor, director of Virginia Tech's Center for High Performance Manufacturing (CHPM). He says, "For small companies, it's much more difficult to embrace technology, know what's available, and take the financial risk. [In fact] often those most at risk are the most risk averse," especially those looking for immediate or short-term returns on investment.

To meet the needs of the smaller firms, CHPM began administering the Virginia Small Manufacturers Assistance Program last July. Seventeen projects are under way. But getting the word out is difficult. "We work hard to communicate with small manufacturers-with limited success," he says.

Tamea Franco Woodward can confirm his impressions. The president of East West DyeCom in Roanoke says that small manufacturers can't get "out there" to talk about their needs. "There's a huge sector of small manufacturers not being represented, due to lack of time and lack of money." She also agrees with Taylor's observation that the smaller firms find it difficult to embrace technology. She recently made a substantial investment in planning software for her business. "The more I look at what technology and software can do for a company," she says, "I realize that if I don't take advantage of them, I won't be here in 10 years."

Responses

To address the needs of the region's manufacturers, the participants in Foster's regional manufacturing leadership roundtable came up with three action items:

* Build a consortium of regional manufacturing leaders;

* Organize collectively funded regional trainings;

* Promote manufacturing and the skilled trades as an attractive career option to local middle schools and high schools.

CVCC's Shoun is already actively involved in addressing the last point: building a pipeline of skilled workers for the future. Some of his workforce development programs include:

* Summer middle school career exploration academies;

* The FIRST LEGO League fourth- and fifth-grade robotics competition;

* STEM middle school reading program in science and technology;

* Annual regional technology fair and competition among 12 high schools;

* Summer apprenticeships for high school students.

Franklin County has had its own middle school program since 1997, says Scott Martin, director of commerce and leisure services. The Center for Applied Technology and Career Exploration allows eighth-grade students to explore various career options, offering study modules in environmental and natural resources, arts, manufacturing, engineering and architectural design, media design, legal science, finance and health and human services.

Furthermore, the county is getting set to break ground in April for the $6 million Center for Workforce Development and Lifelong Learning, in downtown Rocky Mount.

On a smaller scale, Warren is building Lynchburg's, and his own, pipeline of workers. For the past 10 years, he has brought on E.C. Glass High School students as apprentices; he has hired five so far. In addition, he offers tours of his facility to high school guidance counselors. "The first thing that's always a surprise to them," he says, "is that it's air conditioned, all clean, well-lighted and not loud. [Also] every one of the machines I use has a programmable computer."

In support of changing perceptions, Plastics One's Richardson has the last word: "Not every region can be a Silicon Valley-don't shun manufacturing."

(Deborah Nason is a Roanoke-based freelance writer.)

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