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Foxx Visits Local Company to Highlight Skills Gap

By Tom Joyce, Mt. Airy News

Rep. Virginia Foxx this week visited a Mount Airy company, Altec Inc., to emphasize the need to fill high-skilled jobs required for modern manufacturing.

There not only is a demand in Surry County for workers to occupy key roles in today’s high-tech industry environment, but electricians, plumbers, truck drivers and others, according to local community college and economic-development officials.

“Welding is also a skill that obviously is needed,” Surry Economic Development Partnership President Todd Tucker said Wednesday.

Mechatronics is a hot field today, said Dr. George Sappenfield, vice president of corporate and continuing education, Surry Community College, speaking of a technology combining electronics and mechanical engineering.

“Maintenance of robotics and those kinds of things,” Sappenfield added Wednesday. “Essentially just maintenance people.”

Tucker says industries require individuals possessing the mechanical abilities not only to operate and maintain machinery, but fix it, while also having programming skills. “Because most machines today are run by computer.”

In addition to digital and other technical capabilities, “soft skills” such as communication, team-building and problem-solving are in demand, the economic-development official said, along with proficiency in math and science.

“Those things are at the top of the list for a lot of employers.”

Foxx focuses on issue

Tuesday’s visit to Altec by Rep. Foxx, who serves Surry and 10 other counties in North Carolina’s 5th District in Congress, was designed to draw attention to the skills gaps for critical jobs.

“This is an issue that not only is Surry County having, but the nation is having,” Tucker said.

The stopover by Foxx, occurring during the August congressional recess, was hosted by Altec in conjunction with the National Association of Manufacturers.

It included a tour of the local manufacturing facility and a workforce development roundtable to discuss the skills gap. Altec Inc., an equipment and service provider to the electric utility and other industries, has had a presence in Surry County since March 2016, when it bought Pike Electric’s fleet maintenance division.

“Altec, like manufacturers across this country, face an urgent need for trained, talented workers, a need that will only grow in the coming years,” National Association of Manufacturers President and CEO Jay Timmons said in a statement.

“Right now, manufacturers have some 441,000 jobs to fill — jobs that are rewarding and high-paying and help families build brighter futures.”

Overcoming stereotypes

Sappenfield, the SCC official, said today’s manufacturing environment generally is pristine, unlike the sweatshop variety in the past.

Along with overcoming a stereotype about factories being dingy, unpleasant places to work, Tucker says there is perception — lingering from widespread plant closings — that people who work in manufacturing eventually will lose their jobs.

Yet the future is bright, according to the National Association of Manufacturers official, citing a study involving that organization. It shows that by 2025, as many as 2 million manufacturing jobs could go unfilled.

“So we need all elected leaders engaged, and we’re grateful for Rep. Foxx’s leadership on this issue as well as other manufacturing issues like tax reform and regulatory relief, which have also empowered manufacturing workers,” Timmons added.

During the facility tour, Foxx had the opportunity to see firsthand the types of high-skilled jobs required to run Altec’s machinery and equipment.

“Manufacturing is at the heart of the 5th District’s economy,” the congresswoman said in a statement.

“As the district’s economy continues to evolve from historically manufactured products to cutting-edge innovations in areas such as telecommunications, I will continue to support policies that allow manufacturing to thrive,” Foxx continued.

“Altec’s products and services enable workers to do what Americans do best — get the job done.”

Manufacturers such as Altec contribute $100 billion to North Carolina’s economy and employ more 460,000 of the state’s residents, according to Foxx.

“And I look forward to supporting enterprises like Altec as we continue to put Americans back to work.”

During the roundtable discussion, company leaders thanked Rep. Foxx for her commitment to helping build the high-skilled labor force to fill modern manufacturing jobs.

“We appreciate the strong support we receive from Rep. Foxx,” Altec Chairman and CEO Lee Styslinger III said in a statement. “She has always recognized the importance of manufacturing in helping to generate economic growth — both in the U.S. as well as in her district,” he mentioned.

“In addition, I commend Rep. Foxx for her outstanding leadership in the areas of education and workforce development,” Styslinger remarked.

“Her experience in education reform and her innovative ideas related to the changing nature of work are helping to develop important initiatives that will generate job growth for U.S. workers and help U.S. businesses meet the workforce challenges of the 21st century.”

Surry addressing need

Sappenfield and Tucker say public schools in Surry County and the community college have recognized the skills gap and aligned programs to meet the need.

At the college, this includes training through its regular programs and also the continuing education area, Sappenfield said. He mentioned that this emphasis further extends to the elementary level in public schools.

But that is only half of the equation, according to Tucker. Young people in particular must be motivated to take advantage of the training and job opportunities.

“There is not only a skills gap, but I think there is a skills gap because we have an interest gap,” the economic-development official said of their reluctance to pursue trades not considered glamorous or exciting.

“And that’s something we’ve got to change.”

The skills that are in demand can translate to reliable jobs with lucrative salaries, he said.

Everybody basically wants the same thing, in Tucker’s view: to be matched up with a career field in which they can excel.

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