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Special Report: Martinsville battles Skills Gap, builds a solution

By Justin Ward, jward@wdbj7.com
Published On: Jan 30 2014 08:09:49 PM EST
Updated On: Jan 30 2014 08:26:00 PM EST

You might think it would be easy to fill jobs in Martinsville, but some companies say they've discovered a problem: plenty of applicants but they are not qualified

HENRY CO., Va. -

The hums of construction on the new building for New College Institute in Martinsville are the sounds of a prosperous economic future to William Wampler.

"It's going to be a world class portal to how we train advanced manufacturing," said William Wampler, the Executive Director of New College Institute.

The former senator turned Executive Director of the institute boasts this as the training ground for people to fill jobs at plants in the area, and to bridge a gap that's plagued company floors.

"The biggest problem we've found when we're hiring people is, really the lack of skills," said John Parkinson, the CEO and President of Drake Extrusions, Incorporated.

The jobs are available, but companies can't find workers in this area with the right educational background or experience to fill the positions. It's called a Skills Gap.

Drakes Extrusion, Incorporated, which makes fibers that go into cars and flooring, has been in Martinsville for 15 years and now has about 200 employees, but finding those workers was tough.

"There are certain times of the year where it's just taken six to eight weeks to get the right caliber of person. We've gone past the point of just hiring somebody to fill a position now because that never works at the end of the day," Parkinson said.

Eastman Chemicals ran into the same issue. It makes window films for cars and buildings and looks for workers who have experience in advanced manufacturing.

"Even though in Martinsville the unemployment rate is high, a lot of the people that are available haven't had the skills and training and background that we're really looking for," said Brian Miller, the plant manager for Eastman. "It is hard at times."

Both companies say they've looked outside the region for qualified workers.

Companies around the nation are facing the same problem.

Martinsville leaders aren't afraid to admit it's a challenge to bridge the Skills Gap.

"A lot of it could be technology related because some of the newer manufacturing strategies have been to increase on the technology side. The equipment, the automation and reduce the amount of unskilled that's needed to be able to produce their product," said Lisa Fultz, the Executive Director of the West Piedmont Workforce Investment Board.

Workers once in front of a sewing machine, are now finding themselves in front of computers.

The West Piedmont Workforce Investment Board works as a middle man, so to speak. Pairing companies in Southern Virginia with qualified workers from Southern Virginia, and finding the right training for people job hunting.

That brings us back to the New College Institute's construction site, where that education and training is expected to begin in late spring, when the building opens. It will be a one-stop-shop for companies looking for workers trained in a specific field.

"They can understand exactly how their workforce will be trained and they can see it happen and they can see the hands on component," William Wampler. "We think we're going to be able to prove this is a good place to do business. We'll give you a trained workforce."

Workforce training leaders say this is just one solution to a complication problem. They're encouraging people searching for a job to branch out of their comfort zone.

"You got to pick yourself up and keep going and it does take an open mind," said Lisa Fultz, who is speaking from experience. She was laid off from an executive position at Bassett Furniture.

"Taking a change and exploring something new to be able to find that new career path that you're comfortable with. And there are so many opportunities here in our region," Fultz said.

Schools like Patrick Henry Community College are working on a solution with New College Institute.

Instructors at PHCC developed an internship learning program to help train students for jobs in the area.

Eastman and Drake are sending some of their job candidates through the program before putting them on the floor.