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AWT breaks ground on Transformation Center in Mentor for manufacturing technology training

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Aug 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-23 06:59:01-04

MENTOR, Ohio — Manufacturers around Mentor and the surrounding community are taking their own steps to create the next generation of well-trained workers in Northeast Ohio with the skills to work in that industry in the future.

Alliance for Working Together (AWT) is breaking ground on its roughly $3 million Transformation Center, a training facility they’ll use to help train manufacturing workers in Northeast Ohio in the technology they need to know for the next generation of manufacturing jobs.

Parts like these are produced in Mentor by a pair of machines that are largely computerized. The catch is manufacturing companies often struggle to find workers who know how to program those computers.

“A lot of people don’t understand that manufacturing is very high-tech, especially the way that we’re moving,” said AWT Executive Director Juliana Petti. “We need a blend of people who are the ‘Gray-collar workforce.’ They have technical skills but they work in offices too.”

Petti says Baby Boomer workers are retiring, putting pressure on companies and younger workers to train up quickly to replace older generations.

The Work

A few minutes on a manufacturing floor shows you that they are just as loud as they’ve ever been, but in 2021, they have a lot more computer screens and the workers have a lot less dirt under their fingernails.

Computerized equipment loads and unloads roughly 40 lb pieces of raw steel into other machines for it to be processed into parts needed for forklifts.

“We need to get to a point where the so-called ‘heavy work’ and lifting is being done by the machines that we put into place,” said G&T Manufacturing Vice President Colin Cutts.

That’s why G&T Manufacturing has already heavily invested in automated technology that not only saves workers from doing routine and heavy lifting but also frees up those workers to operate multiple machines at once by handling repetitive tasks.

Cutts shows News 5 part of the automated manufacturing process in his Mentor facility.

“Right now, it says it’s 15 ahead because it’s unloading and loading,” said Cutts, looking at a computer screen that shows him how the machine is operating compared to predetermined metrics. “We can always continuously see if we’re running and hitting our targets.”

“Modern manufacturing is 90% geared around what we do on a computer,” said AWT Instructor and Curriculum Developer Matt Kulbis. “Traditionally we’ve seen business have 20-some operators and maybe one programmer for those 20 operators.”

"One of the things that especially small and mid-sized-manufacturers have not been able to do effectively is maintain the internal skills that they need to operate," said Kulbis.

That disparity means there could be few workers who know how to program computerized machinery, creating a backlog of work if that one worker calls out sick, is on vacation, or leaves for another position.

The goal is to train more workers on the necessary computer programming skills so more people can do that kind of work.

The Workforce

AWT’s website says it is “a small, informal group of manufacturers, who met to discuss topics of interest and best practices among local manufacturers.”

One of the biggest problems is finding workers to fill open positions.

AWT's apprentice program allows companies to help their employees gain new manufacturing skills so they can do more around the shop, advance in their careers, and earn more money.

“If you knock on any manufacturer’s door right now and ask what their biggest problem is, it’s going to be finding workers,” said Spence Technologies President Sara Spence.

She says companies often try to train up workers so they know what they need but that’s also often limited.

"In an interview, one of the first things [we ask]: are you comfortable with a computer," said Spence. "Because if they say, 'No, they terrify me,' that's not a good fit because everything is pretty much computerized in our shop."

“We provide some training on the shop floor but it’s hard,” said Spence. “We don’t have the time and resources to provide that full training.”

That’s why companies like Spence Technologies and G&T Manufacturing are supporting AWT’s $3 million Transformation Center which breaks ground Monday in Mentor right next to the Fredon Corporation, whose CEO Roger Sustar founded AWT.

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The new building will be a hub to train manufacturing workers in new technology.

“Our plan is to make Northeast Ohio the hub for this technology that everybody will want to come to and flock to Northeast Ohio to get their hands on this technology, the training, and even to get the workforce that’s here,” said Cutts.

Right now, AWT companies are working through the specific technology they’ll train workers on during the existing apprentice program. Right now, AWT already runs an apprentice program where local companies send employees to training during the week. It’s paid for by the company and free to the worker, giving them the skills they need to succeed at their current positions or advance their careers.

Screens like this one allow manufacturing companies to remotely track how efficient their computerized machines are and if they are on schedule.

“It’s really helping us keep up with the world,” said Machinist Apprentice Matt Scaparotti.

His shop already largely uses automated machinery but the apprentice program gives him other skills that round out his overall knowledge and positions him for more responsibility in the shop.

Scaparotti changed careers to become a machinist and is now going through the apprentice program to pick up additional skills.

“Our shop recently has grown,” said Scaparotti. “We went from a 20,000-square-foot facility to a 70,000-square-foot facility.”

That means more jobs and the need for more workers at a moment when industry leaders agree well-trained workers are in short supply. AWT’s training program tries to change that.

The Pipeline

Manufacturers are turning to high school students and local school districts to build up the next generation of workers.

The Lake Shore Compact works with students in Mentor, Wickliffe, and Euclid school districts to introduce them to technical jobs, allowing them to get both college credit and make progress towards industry-recognized technical credentials at the same time. Regardless of the path they choose after high school, the program allows them to get a head start.

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Early mock-ups show what the inside of the machine shop could look like.

“It’s really more of a case for how well Ohio is doing,” said Lake Shore Compact Director Dr. Joe Glavan. “When you look at Governor DeWine and Lieutenant Governor Husted, they’ve really been leading the way with their workforce development, with their TechCred initiatives.”

Dr. Glavan says his program is setting students up for success whether they decide to seek technical credentials or a college degree after high school.

Building up Ohio’s workforce has been one of Lt. Gov. Husted’s projects, serving as Governor DeWine’s Director of the Governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation. TechCred reimburses employers for enrolling employees in programs that can get them new credentials. It’s helped AWT companies cover the cost of the apprenticeship program and just opened its 10th application period in July.

“They’re really pushing industry-recognized credentials, helping the next generation have a valuable skill to take into the workforce,” said Dr. Glavan.

Cutts' machines help turn the raw steel on the right into the half-finished forklift piece on the left, removing much of the original piece in just a few minutes.

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