Sunday, June 03, 2007

VaBIO-VMA Grants Project in the News

Plants need skilled labor, and Va. project wants to help
Grant will let alliance train youths, others for manufacturing careers

Sunday, Jun 03, 2007 - 12:06 AM

The path to the manufacturing plant was a pretty clear one for Sheryl Alston Bryan.

You might say it was in her blood: Her father worked for Reynolds Metals Co., a Richmond manufacturer, for 40 years; her uncle was a metallurgist for the company.

"In manufacturing, you develop a passion for it, or you don't," she said. "I developed a passion for it."

Now, after a 20-year career in manufacturing at Alcoa Inc., Bryan is trying to help young people find a similar path. It isn't an easy task.

"We don't have a lot of young people coming up who say, 'I want to go into manufacturing,'" Bryan said. "The issue is: How do we develop the new talent?"

Bryan is leading an effort to prepare more Virginians for skilled manufacturing jobs.

In October, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded a $1.49million grant to industry groups in Virginia to support advanced manufacturing training and economic development. The grant was part of a $16.8 million national job-training initiative, but only 11 of 186 groups in the nation that applied were selected to receive funding.

In Virginia, the project is being co-led by the Virginia Biotechnology Association and the Virginia Manufacturers Association, along with Training & Development Corp., a national, nonprofit organization that works on job training and economic development issues.

Bryan was chosen in April as project director for the partnership, known as the Virginia Council on Advanced Technology Skills. She is working with compa- nies with operations in Virginia that also are partnering in the project.

The goal is to develop a training curriculum and certification standards to help young people just entering the job market -- or adults transitioning into new careers -- find work with manufacturing companies that need highly skilled production employees.

The seed money provided by the Department of Labor is helping with outreach and curriculum development. Eventually, the project will involve opening labs, possibly several around the state, for classes in technical skills geared specifically to manufacturing.

One of the goals of the project -- and one of Bryan's personal goals -- is to dispel popular notions that manufacturing is a dead-end career path.

While manufacturing jobs have been declining as a percentage of overall employment in the United States for years, and many lower-skill jobs have migrated overseas, demand is still high for skilled workers, many manufacturing employers say.

"It is not that [manufacturing] is going away. It is changing," Bryan said. "The employee of today is not the same employee as 10 years ago. The manufacturing world today is high-tech, with a lot of problem-solving."

That means people who want to have long, successful and well-paying careers in manufacturing increasingly need to have mechanical, electrical and computer skills, as well as a good understanding of concepts such as lean manufacturing and quality control, said Brett Vassey, president and chief executive officer of the Virginia Manufacturers Association.

"That is the revolution in our industry," Vassey said. "That is what we are trying to keep up with and make sure the state is ahead of the curve."

State officials have estimated that about 100,000 manufacturing workers in Virginia will retire in the next 10 years, including about 45,000 technically skilled workers, which will create a surge of demand for skilled labor.

"Our manufacturers today are having a hard time finding the workers they need to fill positions at their advanced manufacturing companies," said Mark Herzog, executive director of the Virginia Biotechnology Association. "They realize if they are having trouble today filling these jobs, it is going to be almost impossible 10 or 15 years down the road when the baby boomers are retiring."

Private-sector companies that are partnering in the project include Alcoa, Boehringer Ingelheim Chemicals Inc., Micron Technology Inc., Novozymes Biologicals, and Philip Morris USA.

Cathy Martin, human resources and public relations director for the Boehringer Ingelheim Chemicals plant in Petersburg, which makes pharmaceutical ingredients, said her company needs employees who have a good understanding of technology and chemistry.

"Today, we actually spend almost two years in fairly intense training with our new hires before they are really fully capable of being a fully skilled technician for us," she said.

But the training program that Bryan is working to develop could help the company prepare employees six to nine months faster.

David Sutton, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA, said the tobacco company also is concerned about a shortage of skilled labor.

"Given the nature of our business and our operations, we have a need for highly skilled manufacturing employees," he said. "Ultimately, this type of program helps keep these jobs in Virginia."

Bryan was a perfect fit to lead the project, Vassey and Herzog said. "Sheryl epitomizes what we are talking about," Vassey said. "Having run several manufacturing plants, she understands the issue."

When Bryan graduated from Virginia Tech in 1987, she went to work for Alcoa, a global manufacturing company best known for its aluminum products.

Her career with the company took her to plants in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Detroit and St. Louis, where she worked in a variety of engineering, sales and management roles. Two years after Alcoa acquired Richmond-based Reynolds Metals in 2000, she returned to her hometown to manage the company's local aluminum foil plant, where Reynolds Wrap is made.

She always loved math and physical science and understanding how things are made. When she was in college, she did an internship at Reynolds, in research and development.

"My desire was to go into operations in a plant where products were being made," she said. "I wanted to see the results of my work."

Bryan also has one other key qualification: After leaving Alcoa last year, she spent six months working as a tutor in Henrico County schools, helping students prepare for the state's Standards of Learning tests.

"I love teaching," she said. "It was challenging, but it was fun. It helped me realize what kids are learning today, and how it could relate to what they need to know to be active participants in today's society."

She sees young people who are capable and ambitious, but they often have misconceptions about manufacturing. They might envision it as repetitive, dirty or low-wage work, but Bryan wants to change those views and present manufacturing as a cutting-edge career.

"I've always liked problem-solving," she said. "If we want to keep our jobs here in Virginia, and keep attracting businesses, we have to do something to solve this problem."

Contact staff writer John Reid Blackwell at or (804) 775-8123.

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