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Sunday, 15 February 2015 22:00

GRCC offers niche program in industrial sewing

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Specialized industries in West Michigan often run into the same training and talent constraints as high-growth sectors such as the automotive supply chain.

For example, West Michigan’s nascent industrial sewing sector has begun to gain steam as production ramps up for textile-intensive products like furniture and other consumer goods and as quality concerns overseas bring jobs back to the region. But like many other manufacturers, textile-dependent companies’ demand for skilled talent has grown at the same time firms are locked in an intense battle for workers.

That’s according to Julie Parks, director of workforce training at Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC). To fill the talent gap for manufacturers in the region, GRCC recently launched its industrial sewing course in December 2014.

“It really fits into workforce development and what we do,” Parks said. “It’s just another phase of manufacturing in the area that may attract people who may like more creative work. … We’re trying to show people the different options in manufacturing that are out there.”

Prior to the GRCC program, Grand Rapids-based HexArmor tried to find talented workers with some experience in sewing via word of mouth or from referrals from traditional employment agencies, said Ben Stuart, the company’s operations manager.

A manufacturer of industrial personal protection equipment, HexArmor often declines job applicants for sewing positions because they don’t have the required skills to operate the equipment, he said.

“It’s a lost art that has gone away over the course of time,” Stuart said. “To have pre-trained candidates and assimilate them into a work cell with minimum training is a huge benefit to us.”

Industrial sewing was once a vibrant manufacturing sector until the 1990s when companies largely began sending work overseas because of cheaper production costs, Parks said.

“Today, we may call it a niche market, but 25 years ago, it was commonplace and then it went overseas,” she said.

Approximately 143,000 sewing machine operators were employed across the U.S. in 2013, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS). That’s compared to the approximately 265,000 sewing machine operators a decade before in 2003. The Grand Rapids-Wyoming metro area housed 250 sewing machine operators out of the state’s 3,150 in 2013, according to BLS data.

The 120-hour course at GRCC teaches students skills in equipment operation, production processes and other industry-related topics. Following the course, the program guarantees graduates interviews with one of GRCC’s 10 industry partners, including HexArmor.

With so many companies scrambling to find talent, many students are receiving job offers prior to completing the program, which can prove challenging both for the students and for the program, Parks said. To avoid a situation where students drop out of the courses to take a job offer, the program has allowed several students to be hired on and work during the days they don’t have class.

To increase accessibility, GRCC set the price for the class at just $35. The program was able to offer the coursework at a low cost due to a $30,000 grant from JP Morgan. A portion of the program’s funding also comes from the Michigan Coalition for Advanced Manufacturing. The funding allowed GRCC to purchase additional equipment for training, Parks said.

GRCC is developing a sustainability plan for the program to go into effect after the JP Morgan grant expires in the spring of 2015, Parks said. To keep funded, the program may turn to corporate sponsors and investment from its partner companies to keep costs low and accessible.

“To create a talent pool in the region that’s endless, we’d absolutely invest,” Stuart of HexArmor said. “From a candidate’s perspective, I love that they’re able to enter a program and have a job opportunity somewhere. That’s great for both West Michigan and the program.”

Read 3466 times Last modified on Sunday, 15 February 2015 16:17

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