SMITHFIELD — Dwight Barnes, who teaches computer-integrated machining at Johnston Community College, has a bold prediction for the program’s graduates.
“Every one of our students will have a job when they graduate,” he says. “We get calls from companies every week asking to interview our students.”
Barnes was one of several JCC staffers talking with potential students during an open house last week for the college’s advanced manufacturing programs. The event include a tour of the shop floor and a look at some of the college’s new machinery.
Manufacturing is growing across the country, but companies are struggling to find qualified workers, Barnes said. New manufacturing processes require more-skilled workers who can operate machinery run mostly by computers. Because of the skill need, jobs that used to go to unskilled workers in Third World countries are coming back to the United States, Barnes said.
“Years ago, a lot of this work was being sent overseas because of the labor involved,” he said, noting that it could take three to four unskilled laborers to run a single machine.
The new technology has different demands. One person can run a machine using a computer, but that worker must be able to write and edit software programs that tell the machine what to do. That skill set demands more training.
Barnes said manufacturers are increasingly looking to American workers to fill these jobs, but demand for labor is outstripping the supply. According to the National Association of Manufacturers, about 600,000 jobs went unfilled in 2011 because of a lack of qualified candidates.
Manufacturing companies in Johnston County have been complaining to county leaders about the dearth of skilled labor. The college is trying to keep up.
JCC has spent about $425,000 in the last three years renovating the shop floor that acts as a classroom for its manufacturing students. The Golden Leaf foundation contributed another $275,000.
David Johnson, the college’s president, said JCC has been working to establish deeper ties between manufacturers and the college. Those manufacturers now have a say in determining the program’s curriculum, which can change with developing technology.
“We have regular meetings with manufacturers,” Johnson said. “They’re very much a part of what we do here.”
Selling the program to students is a challenge, Johnson said. Many think manufacturing is repetitive, simple work that pays little.
Johnson said that’s not the case with manufacturing today. “Folks that can run these million-dollar machines can make a very good salary and provide for their families very well,” he said.
Michael Starling, dean of business, public service and technology programs at JCC, said the college is trying to spread its manufacturing message by offering introductory classes to high school and college students who haven’t chosen a program of study.
The students in JCC’s machining program are proof that today’s manufacturing is far removed from its repetitive past. Before the open house, a few of them lingered in the shop.
They spent most of their time looking at code and blueprints on a computer screen. The actual of cutting of steel that would become machine or auto parts was completely automated.
Chris Anderson, who will graduate in May, said the program works well for students with no experience. “I came without knowing what a lathe or a mill was,” he said. After completing two years of study, he’s got a job lined up at Dayco Manufacturing in Clayton. He starts next month.