They’re trying to get a $50 million cap lifted so they can move down the waiting list of companies that want to participate.

Many Michigan students moving through such programs used to work at companies most Americans have heard of: Electrolux, Alcoa, Whirlpool, and of course the Big Three automakers and the companies that supported them.

The companies where they’re now training for jobs are less well-known: BioDri (alternative energy), Trans-Matic (metal stampings), Oxus America (oxygen concentrators). Typically, such companies are younger and smaller and need tightly tailored training that applies only to themselves or a very narrow industry sector.

“For small- and mid-size employers who actually generate a lot of the jobs in this economy, developing that kind of training for 5 or 10 employees that they’re going to hire, it’s not economically feasible,” said Rachel Unruh, associate director of the National Skills Coalition, a foundation-supported workforce development coalition. That’s where community colleges come in.

On the factory floor at Fitzpatrick Manufacturing, $100,000 machines do work that used to be cranked by hand — but somebody has to know how to run the machines.

Software evolves constantly, as do the machines customers are building with these parts. For some parts, the margin of error can be no more than .0004 inches — roughly one-tenth the width of a human hair.

One typical “middle skill” is called “geometric dimensioning and tolerancing,” or GDT.

Basically, it’s a language of symbols used in engineering blueprints. Customers used to give companies like Fitzpatrick blueprints with written words, but that left too much room for error. Now the field has shifted to GDT as a kind of lingua franca. On two recent Saturdays, Macomb instructors came by to help employees brush up on GDT.

“To learn calculus that you would learn in an engineering curriculum is all well and good,” said Mike Fitzpatrick, whose family founded the company in 1952 and who sold it to LaComb and a partner last year but remains on staff. “But it has nothing to do with us.”

Large companies are no less appreciative of rapid response times. When the big Dow Chemical plant in Midland, about two hours north of here, is ready to ramp up production in its chemical processing unit, it calls Patricia Graves at nearby Delta College, who in turn starts calling a list of interested students to ask, “When can you start?”

Soon, another “Fast Start” customized training program in chemical process operations is up and running at Delta. Twelve weeks later, virtually all graduates move on to work for Dow Chemical or one of the other major plants in the region. Some return to Delta after they start work for even more customized training. Delta has trained and placed eight such groups of roughly 20 people each.

Now it offers versions serving other Dow operations in the area, including a six-week program for solar manufacturing and a 10-week program in batteries.


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