(Steven Lane/The Columbian)
A long, shiny semi trailer was parked at Pearson Field last week. Big letters on its side announced it to be an "Advanced Inspection and Manufacturing Mobile Training Unit."
That's a long way of saying classroom on wheels.
The inside of the trailer is stuffed with computers, test equipment and sophisticated measuring instruments, all of it geared toward use in machining.
But this was more than a one-day visit of a fancy training tool — it marked the upcoming arrival of new job training programs in Clark County.
The mobile training unit belongs to a nonprofit called the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee. The group organizes job-training programs ranging from eight hours to four years in many metropolitan areas in Washington, and is now in negotiations to do the same in the Vancouver area.
The committee was formed in 2008, when employers were "in panic mode" about finding enough trained workers, said Laura Hopkins, AJAC's executive director. It is a nonprofit, but is funded almost entirely by the state through annual contracts. This gives AJAC more flexibility than if it were an outright public agency, yet keeps it accountable, Hopkins said.
The nonprofit's mission is to "capture the skills of the best tradespeople in the state and pass them on to the next generation," she said.
AJAC started its first training program in the summer of 2009 in Tacoma. Over the next few years, it offered worker training in Everett, Spokane and the Tri-Cities. Yakima will get a program this fall, Hopkins said. And then it's Vancouver's turn.
This was the mobile training unit's second local visit in two weeks. AJAC is in the midst of meetings with public officials and economic development organizations about connecting schools, nonprofits and employers the way it has in other places.
When do the locals hope to get these programs in place?
"Yesterday," Nelson Kee, a youth program manager with the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council, said drily.
He toured the mobile classroom with Gail Spolar, director of youth workforce programs for Educational Service District 112.
Southwest Washington doesn't appear to have enough apprenticeship programs, Kee said. There are many farther north along Interstate 5, and many young people go to Portland to learn their job skills.
"We should be taking responsibility for our own," Kee said.
AJAC can help with that, he said. The nonprofit provides three main services to workers and employers: on-site training, apprenticeships and a manufacturing academy.
Inspect as you go
The equipment inside the truck can be used to teach workers one very specific skill that can advance their standing with a company and help employers keep costs down. Such training can be done in as little as one work day, said Terry Hagel, the instructor inside the rolling classroom.
For example, the truck features non-destructive testing equipment. The gadgets can detect whether there is a flaw inside metal, composite or carbon fiber products without having to break the product apart.
The mobile unit can pull up at a manufacturing plant and teach select workers how to use the devices the very same day, as it did in Spokane recently, Hagel said. A bathtub manufacturer asked AJAC to park in front of the plant and show line workers how to test the powder coating they applied to the tubs. The test equipment would show if the coatings were thick enough, without having to go through a separate quality assurance step. This saves time and money.
Such inspection performed during manufacturing is becoming more common, said Hopkins, AJAC's executive director. Employers can call AJAC, ask for the truck to come by for certain tasks and save themselves the expense of training special testing technicians.
By the same token, line workers with the added skill sets are more resistant to layoffs.
The core business of AJAC is its apprenticeship program. The nonprofit works with private companies to set up such programs in-house. All hands-on training is done at the company, by experienced workers selected by the company.
AJAC provides teaching training for these workers, which it calls mentors. It provides a system the company can use to set up its apprenticeships, including which skills to teach with an eye toward journey-level certification.
After ties are established with a company, AJAC selects a local community college for the classroom portion of the apprenticeship. Workers go to class one night per week, for which they earn transferable college credit.
There is no cost to the employer for the program, aside from paying the mentor and the apprentices. There is a cost for the college tuition, which some companies choose to pay for their employees. AJAC doesn't get involved in that part of it, other than demanding that companies treat all their employees the same when it comes to tuition reimbursement.
The apprenticeships are for the two trades most in demand around the state: machining and airplane mechanic, Hopkins said.
The machining program is administered a little differently than most places. Workers can choose to only get CNC certification, which takes two years and shows they know how to operate computer-automated machine tools. Or they can train for the full four years and be journey-level certified machinists.
For the airplane mechanic program, AJAC offers a unique twist: getting certified without going to a two-year classroom program. Most workers don't know they can take the certification test if they can show 18 months of work experience in the field, Hopkins said. AJAC helps achieve that, by logging hours, providing training for specific tasks and counseling employers on how to rotate workers on the job, so they're well-rounded going into the test.
The apprenticeships operate with a common curriculum at all sites around the state, which means it should be easier for workers to find a job outside of their hometowns, if necessary.
Lastly, the nonprofit runs programs around the state called manufacturing academies. These are ten-week programs that prepare people for careers in almost any manufacturing job, but again with an eye toward machining and aerospace.
This was the main reason Kee and Spolar, the youth program coordinators from Vancouver, were inside the truck at Pearson last week. The academies can help young people envision what it means to work in manufacturing and aerospace industries. And it can teach them the non-industry-specific skills that every employer is looking for: work ethic, being on time, how to be safe on the job and other so-called "soft skills."The manufacturing academies typically are set up in conjunction with a regional workforce development organization, Hopkins said. She's been talking with Kee about setting one up in Clark County.
Here's how it worked recently in Tacoma: The workforce development council put out the word through its network. About 170 people, young and old, applied. The council and AJAC pre-screened those 170 and whittled them down to 30 applicants who seemed promising. Employers who had previously signed up then interviewed the 30. The employers chose 17 of them, based on what they're looking for in their workers.
Those 17 came to a warehouse set up with AJAC training stations for eight hours a day, Monday through Friday for 10 weeks.
They learned skill one just by showing up every day on time, Hopkins said with a smile.
There was no guarantee of a job, but the employers who selected the 17 are sure to favorably view successful graduates of the academy.
No timeline is set for AJAC's arrival in Vancouver, but the need is there, Kee said. The workforce development group has been working with the Columbia River Economic Development Council to assess the needs of local industry, Kee said.
There seem to be shortages in workers for advanced manufacturing and CNC machining in Clark County, he said."Our responsibility is to provide trained workers (for these sectors)," Kee said. "This speaks to all of it."