Wilkes County Manufacturing - Not the Factories They Once Were

Wilkes County Manufacturing – Not the Factories They Once Were

Written by Linda Cheek, President

“The ability to make things is fundamental to the ability to innovate things over the long term,” says Willy Shih, a Harvard Business School professor and co-author of Producing Prosperity: Why America Needs a Manufacturing Renaissance. “When you give up making products, you lose a lot of the added value.” In other words, what you make makes you.

As president of the Chamber I’ve had the opportunity over the last few months to tour several Wilkes County Manufacturers.  These opportunities came about as I’ve been involved in the facilitation of Leadership Wilkes 2014, NC Works’ 1000 in 100 Initiative, and Manufacturer’s Day at Worldwide Protective Products.   During each visit we heard about the changing workforce and the difficulties in hiring skilled labor.  The visits also included a tour of the manufacturing facility enabling us to see the production lines in operation at which time I quickly noticed the lack of employees working around the equipment and machinery.  The machinery was being operated by technology that was observed by a limited number of employees.   In a recent article featured in TIME magazine writer Rana Foroohar states, “Today’s U.S. factories aren’t the noisy places where your grandfather knocked in four bolts a minute for eight hours a day.  Dungarees and lunch pails are out; computer skills and specialized training are in, since the new made-in-America economics is centered largely on cutting-edge technologies.”   Worldwide Protective Products

This statement holds true in Wilkes County’s manufacturing.  In years past when I’ve toured textile mills there would be rows of employed sewers sitting at machines sewing fabric pieces as rapidly as possible as they worked diligently to reach their production goal.  Today, the sewing is completed by massive automated sewing machines with large spools of thread attached.  There’s one employee located at the end of each line that’s responsible for the machines operation checking the automation and observing the spools of thread making sure they feed the machines or need replacing.   At times in other automated manufacturing processes, we saw employees stationed at computers watching the machines manufacture the products.   

We read that throughout the United States there are industries developing new manufacturing techniques way ahead of global competitors and are using these to produce goods more efficiently on super automated factory floors.  These factories have more machines and fewer workers — and those workers must be able to master the machines.  We learned that many new manufacturing jobs require at least a two-year tech degree to complement artisan skills such as welding or milling.  As new technology is engaged, the bar will only get higher.  We read that some experts believe it won’t be too long before employers will expect a four-year degree — a job qualification that will eventually be required in many other places around the world too.

To prepare our youth for these super automated manufacturers, Wilkes County Schools and Wilkes Community College have implemented numerous technical programs that offer the education and training to meet the skills needs.  Programs such as STEM in Wilkes County Middle Schools, a project based curriculum designed to challenge and engage the natural curiosity of students. The program is a three tiered framework which encompasses integration of STEM concepts, use of individual and collaborative classroom technology, and project-based learning that promotes critical thinking skills.

Wilkes Community College has the Industrial and Workforce Development Division which includes departments of Architectural & Building Construction Technology, Engineering Technology, Transportation Technology, Advanced Manufacturing & Materials, and Horticulture & Bio-Agriculture Technology.   A few of the many areas of study provided by the division include architectural technology, automotive systems technology, collision repair & refinishing technology, building construction technology, computer engineering, electronics engineering, heavy equipment and transportation technology, horticulture technology, industrial systems technology, and welding technology. 

Wilkes County has also committed to become a NC Works Certified Work Ready Community.  A Certified Work Ready Community provides counties with a framework to validate that they have a skilled workforce ready to fill current and future jobs.  Partners in the CWRC initiative include the NC Community Colleges System, the NC Dept. of Public Instruction, the NC Dept. of Commerce, the North Carolina Chamber, and numerous economic/workforce development entities throughout the state.  To obtain the certification counties must achieve established goals of individuals earning a National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC) along with business recognition and recommendation of qualified NCRC applicants in their hiring process.  To learn more about the CWRC for your business or industry, contact Dan Little with Wilkes Economic Development Corporation 336-838-1501.  

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