Senator aims to fill jobs, close communication gap

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Hagan wants to link small companies with qualified workers

Jeff Frushtick has a pressing problem: He needs specialized machinists but can’t find any.

The president and CEO of Leonard Automatics Inc. in Denver, N.C., is poised to expand Leonard beyond its current 30 employees but is stuck in a hiring limbo because of a lack of qualified workers. He expressed his frustration at a workforce development roundtable discussion Friday in Matthews hosted by Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.

“Finding mechanical engineers today who have the experience or background of machine design and metal fabrication, that is a dying trade,” Frushtick said. “Everybody we talk to wants to do model simulation calculations for sending spaceships to the moon. Going back to the basics of manufacturing, we’re missing out.”

Told of various programs available to him and Leonard, he offered a quick reply.

“We’re a small company,” Frushtick told Hagan and the other panelists. “We don’t know these things. The information is not filtering down to the small employer.”

Hagan said she’s determined to change that by fostering better communication between federal, state and local workforce programs, especially those administered by community colleges, and small businesses.

That’s when Tony Zeiss, president of Central Piedmont Community College and a panelist at Friday’s roundtable, chimed in.

“We’re turning away about 9,000 students a year who can’t get the classes they need because we don’t have the resources to do it, so that’s problematic,” Zeiss said. “On the other hand, we work very closely with a lot of wonderful businesses in customized training. We’re also working really hard with dislocated workers to help put them back to work.”

But Zeiss added that “one of the big issues with us is the same with Jeff: communication. We don’t know Jeff is out there.”

Zeiss and Hagan said the stakes couldn’t be higher.

“We’re in a global jobs war,” Zeiss said.

“We’ve lost too many manufacturing and textile jobs overseas,” Hagan said, “and on my watch I don’t want that to happen.”

She touted her America Works Act, which she introduced in June and which aims to connect people looking for work with employment opportunities. The act creates a nationwide program that allows workers to receive industry-recognized, portable credentials from local community colleges that qualify them for employment in any state.

Other panelists Friday also expressed frustration at their inability to find and hire skilled workers.

Ellen Sheppard, president of the Carolinas College of Health Sciences, called among other things for a renewed emphasis on STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – courses in middle schools and high schools. Hagan quickly agreed and suggested a future roundtable that includes area superintendents.

Zeiss noted that the percentage of recent high school graduates who come to CPCC who need remediation is 76 percent. That number drew an audible gasp from the panel. “What in the world are they not learning?” Hagan asked.

“They’re not learning math – that’s the big obstacle,” Zeiss responded.

Cheryl Wingate, vice president, talent acquisitions and movement for Time Warner Cable, also talked of specialized training needs in her industry. “We have an opportunity to expand some of the customized training on the front end so that we can build a bigger pool of candidates,” she said.

At the end of the roundtable, which was preceded by a tour of the Matthews JobLink Career Center, Hagan pronounced the event a success but recognized the work ahead, especially with small businesses such as Leonard Automatics.

“The fact that Jeff has open positions and he’s not aware of what’s available right here in our community to share with him shows that we have to keep improving the communications,” she said.

“We have to show what our workforce development team, JobLink, our Department of Commerce can do to help local employers who have job openings and are looking for skilled workers.”

By Steve Byers

The Charlotte Observer

Posted: Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011

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