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Counties developing $1.4M manufacturing lab

Champaign, Logan among 8 counties participating.

Champaign and Logan counties are part of a project to build a $1.4 million mobile manufacturing lab to introduce students to manufacturing techniques and to train local industrial workers.

The effort to train new workers is seen as critical to the region’s future as the current workforce ages and fewer new workers are trained to take their place, said Marcia Bailey, economic development coordinator for Champaign County.

More than half of workers in manufacturing in the participating counties are eligible for retirement in the next 10 to 15 years, Bailey said. It has proved difficult to recruit new students into manufacturing-related programs at local career and technical schools such as the Ohio Hi-Point Career Center.

“When we looked at the manufacturers in Champaign County and the state, it’s the same thing. It’s not just us facing this issue,” Bailey said.

The targeted region includes Champaign, Logan, Madison, Franklin, Hardin, Marion, Morrow and Union counties. So far, the counties involved have raised about one third of the $1.4 million needed to complete the project.

The lab would serve first as a marketing tool. Later it would be taken to sites across the region to provide basic training for area companies. The lab would raise awareness of the types of manufacturing jobs available locally, and the kinds of skills needed from area employees.

The lab would be outfitted with robotics, computer-aided design and computer numerical control technology.

Local business owners often hear complaints about a lack of good jobs, said Tom Coles, director of human resources for Bundy Baking Solutions in Urbana. The company makes commercial and industrial baking pans and other products.

“We have jobs,” Coles said. “I just can’t find people with the right skill sets.”

Enrollment in manufacturing-related programs at area schools has declined in recent years. In the 2013-2014 school year, there were 153 students enrolled in programs like welding, precision machining and manufacturing engineering at area schools such as the Ohio Hi-Point Career Center and the Tri-Rivers Career Center of Central Ohio in Marion.

The 153 students represents only about 6 percent of the total enrollment of the three career and technical centers, and only about 2 percent of the area’s total K-12 enrollment.

The mobile lab would be based on similar programs that have been successful in Michigan and Wisconsin, and would travel throughout the eight participating counties, Bailey said.

“It’s a marketing tool basically,” Bailey said of the mobile lab. “Kindergarten through 12th grade students are the target area, but we’re not just trying to market to students. We’re marketing to their caregivers who help them make the decisions of what they want to be when they grow up.”

In addition to the lab, the project would also seek to establish permanent manufacturing labs to train current workers at the career and technical centers. Each of the three schools already have labs, but the program could provide funding for better equipment and help develop a curriculum based on what skills local companies are looking for.

Manufacturing overall lost jobs during the Great Recession, but the industry has been making a comeback, said Chris Millice, vice president of general administration at KTH, a St. Paris manufacturing firm. KTH has been in business for close to 30 years, Millice said, and many workers have been with the firm for their entire careers.

Many younger workers lost interest in the industry because they believe the work offers low pay and high stress, but that’s often not the case for skilled workers, Millice said.

“Technology is changing,” he said. “It’s cleaner, it’s faster and there’s a lot of automation going on.”

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