Seng Saephan builds spray valves at Fisher Manufacturing Co., Inc. in Tulare, which makes commercial plumbing fixtures.

published on March 12, 2018 - 12:27 PM
Written by David Castellon

Automation is supposed to make things faster and easier for manufacturers, but that doesn’t seem to be the case when it comes to hiring.

New technology is quickly being incorporated into plants in the Valley, whether they process chopped fruit or retread tires, and manufacturers here are having trouble hiring people with the technical skills needed to work with technology.

But the solution may lie in a training method that dates back centuries — apprenticeships, but with a modern twist.

Dan Sousa and Gurminder Singh of the Fresno-based State Center Community College District were at last week’s Food Processing Expo in Sacramento trying to convince exhibitors and employers how apprenticeships could help them fill their manufacturing jobs.

“I’m here to address training. I know a lot of employers are looking for maintenance mechanics, maintenance technicians, instrument techs, electricians. There’s a shortage of them, so we’re here to help meet their needs … in the manufacturing and food processing industry,” said Sousa, whose community college district includes Reedley College, Fresno City College, Madera Community College Center, Oakhurst Community College Center and Clovis Community College.

“My thing is, I’d like to see them invest in up scaling who they have” already working for them, Sousa explained. “If somebody’s pushing a broom or doing a lower-level task on the job site, why not invest in them?”

Instead of offering traditional apprenticeships, in which employees works for years under the guidance of skilled craftsmen to learn their trades, the new model involves working with community colleges that usually offer the sorts of training needed in most manufacturing environments in the Valley, he said.

“Any of our community colleges have the programs. Most of our employers in the manufacturing and food-processing industries have those kinds of programs to upscale their people” available at their local community colleges,” Sousa said.

“So they make it a full-on, registered [apprentice] program with the state of California. Tuition gets waived, so the costs are minimal” as the students or their employers have to lay only for text books, lab fees, parking, etc., he said. “And I have some programs where the employers have their employees go to school while they’re being paid on the job site or allow them to go to school after they punch out [of work].”

While apprenticeship through the community college system is nothing new — as Fresno City College has had such a program for the last 40 years — Sousa said the new push to get more manufacturers involved is being driven by several factors, including that “people are realizing more and more that they can’t find all the qualified personnel they need” and both state and federal agencies are putting a lot of funding into apprentice programs.

Part of the reason is a large number of people in the manufacturing sector are hitting retirement age, leaving behind skilled and semi-skilled jobs that are harder to fill than non-skilled jobs.

Then there’s the new technology coming into factories and warehouses that doesn’t require a college degree to run and oversee, but does require skills beyond those of unskilled laborers.

“I find here in Tulare County, it’s hard to get people with really good skills and [want to] work here. They want to go to Fresno and make more money,” said Rebecca Miller, human resources manager for Fisher Manufacturing Co., Inc. in Tulare, which makes commercial plumbing fixtures.

She said her company has had trouble finding and holding onto people to operate the business’ Computer Numerical Control machine, which cuts and forms pipe.

“And you need to know how to run a machine like that,” Miller said. “They need a knowledge of math, calculation and a skillset to run this thing and master it. It’s a good-paying job, and it’s hard to get somebody with qualifications in those areas.”

Part of the problem is finding somebody with the right temperament who can learn how to run the machine and has an interest in staying in Tulare, as some former employees left after they were trained on the CNC machine to get better-paying jobs in Fresno, Miller said.

She said she sees advantages for recruiting within a business for an apprentice program, as bosses can look for solid workers and gauge their aptitude for the new jobs while also seeking those with strong local ties that make them less likely to leave once they learn their new job skills.

But they do need some aptitude for the new skills needed to work with the new technology, noted Singh, deputy sector navigator for advanced manufacturing in the Central Valley region for the SCCCD.

“Our desire as faculty is that students come in with a higher skillset so we can take it to the next level,” he explained. “Today’s mechanics jobs are highly skilled as compared to 20 years ago. A lot of automation is going on, however, that doesn’t mean we aren’t requiring mechanical aptitude. We still are requiring what we required 20 years ago, but you need much more than that.

Singh said in the last four years the system has developed more than 22 programs in the advanced manufacturing sector — including many in mechatronics, or the computer language robotic systems use to communicate with each other in factories and warehouses.

The demand for skilled labor in the sector continues to grow.

“We love it. It’s definitely much needed. We have a lot of highly-skilled manufacturing jobs we can’t fill,” said William Broomfield, director of engagement for the San Joaquin Valley Manufacturing Alliance.

Another advantage of upscaling existing employees is that advancing them into better-skilled and better-paying jobs opens up their old jobs for less-skilled workers.

His group also is working on promoting interest in manufacturing jobs, which includes working with high schools and community colleges to build up awareness of the job-training programs available in the Valley.

Broomfield noted that in the fall semester, Clovis Community College will be the first Valley community college teaching mechatronics, and this summer the alliance will sponsor 30 high school and community college instructors in welding, machine maintenance and machinist skills for two-week “externships” in which they will work at Valley manufacturing plants with the latest technology to educate them on what’s coming.

Starting this summer, the alliance also will sponsor a group of 10- to 24-year-olds from Fresno County high schools and community colleges to each work 76 paid hours at local manufacturing sites, “So hopefully, when they transition to community college, they will be interested in the manufacturing jobs out there,” Broomfield said.

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