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A path to a manufacturing career: Program at SUNY Buffalo State aims to help long-term unemployed

Nezzyh Nagi looks forward to getting a new job.

Not just a temporary position that will eventually run out and leave him searching for yet another job. He wants a career with staying power.

That is why Nagi was inside the materials processing lab at SUNY Buffalo State’s Technology Building, holding a piece of stock metal and learning the finer points of operating a lathe.

If all goes well, Nagi will earn a Basic Machine II Operator Certificate next year and get hired by a local manufacturing company. Thirty other adults enrolled in the Advanced Manufacturing Training Program at the college are working toward the same objective.

“Hopefully I continue with this program and get a steady job for years, maybe like my dad, at Ford, 30-plus years at Woodlawn,” Nagi said.

Workers needed

Area manufacturers say they need more skilled workers like Nagi is preparing to be, to fill openings due to retirements or expansion plans. And while the region’s jobless rate has been falling, there are still long-term unemployed people looking for jobs that pay well. The program at Buffalo State aims to be a matchmaker of sorts, producing graduates with the skills employers say they struggle to find.

The program may generate only a small number of graduates to address employers’ needs, but it is just getting started. And other schools, such as Erie Community College, are getting people ready for manufacturing careers, as well. On the East Side, the Western New York Workforce Development Center is taking shape.

The SolarCity plant under construction in South Buffalo has drawn greater attention to manufacturing as a career option, with its plans to build a workforce of more than 1,400 people. But lots of smaller manufacturers need to fill vacancies, too.

The Buffalo Niagara region’s manufacturing job count was 53,600 in July, down 42 percent from 25 years ago. While manufacturing jobs may not be as plentiful as they once were, the sector’s July job total was 5.3 percent higher than two years ago.

The growth trend fuels optimism among the six adult students who were working and learning inside the lab at SUNY Buffalo State on a recent afternoon, under the guidance of instructor Ted Ebert.

Free training

The 12-month Advanced Manufacturing Training Program, supported by grants from JPMorgan Chase and the state Labor Department, is notable in a few ways. It is free to the participants and is geared toward individuals unemployed for at least 20 weeks. To join, they must be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma or an equivalent. One of the program’s goals is to increase the number of women, minorities and veterans in the manufacturing workforce.

The program is rigorous: eight hours a day, five days a week. Students learn in the classroom and in the lab, which is filled with machines they might find on a plant floor. They also have visited local manufacturers for job shadowing to get a better feel for the work and to ask questions. On-the-job training is planned near the end of the program.

“We are introducing companies to our students, and the students to the companies,” said Margaret A. Shaw-Burnett, associate vice president of continuing professional studies at Buffalo State. “And hopefully that experience, going out job shadowing first and then the on-the-job training, companies will see that this is a good match.”

Eric Artis, 45, sees the program as a chance to refresh his skills. He already has welding experience, and would ideally like to find a job where he can apply both his welding and machining abilities. The program at Buffalo State will teach Artis and his fellow students to use computer numerical control, or CNC, machines, which are a common feature of manufacturing plants.

Artis has worked at companies including Wendt Corp. and Frontier Hot-Dip Galvanizing. He looks forward to earning good money once he completes the Advanced Manufacturing Training Program.

“These instructors really know their stuff,” he said. “I’m really glad that I’m here. I wouldn’t mind getting more people involved in this trade.”

Ebert, one of the instructors, spent 30 years teaching at Erie 1 BOCES. He methodically walks students through operating the machines, frequently pausing to ask, “What’s this called?” about a certain part or process, to reinforce what the students are learning.

Day by day, Ebert helps them make progress toward their goal.

“We’re moving along,” he said. “But it takes time, and we need more hands-on to learn hands-on.”

Steve M. Macho, associate professor of engineering technology at Buffalo State and faculty adviser to the program, said the students start out learning on manually operated machines, to help them identify problems that they might spot once they are using automated machines. “If you recognize the mistake and stop it, that can save a part,” he said.

Finding full-time jobs

The real payoff comes when the students complete the program. If everything works out, employers will bring the graduates aboard for full-time jobs.

Unittool Punch and Die Co. in North Buffalo, a maker of components used in tooling, could use some more skilled employees, said Laura Kelahan, the controller. “It’s difficult to find machinists these days.”

The company has 42 employees, about 35 of whom are on the shop floor, Kelahan said. The company likes to bring new workers aboard before older workers retire, so the veterans can pass on their knowledge to the newcomers.

Unittool has had success using temporary agencies to find employees to hire, Kelahan said. The company hosted some of the Advanced Manufacturing Training Program participants for job shadowing; Unittool had reached out after learning about the program, and was pleased with the students who visited. “They seem very eager to learn,” she said.

The students still have several months to go to complete their work in the program. Melanie Perreault, provost and vice president for academic affairs at SUNY Buffalo State, said the school has sought to match what it is teaching to what employers say they need.

“These are good-paying jobs that contribute to the tax base,” she said. “Why wouldn’t we want to do what we can to help encourage it?”