New skills

New center helps bolster manufacturing in the Valley

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Print this page by James Heffernan

Mike Stevens punched holes in carpet backing at Mohawk Industries in Waynesboro for three years before the textiles manufacturer decided to close the plant the week before Christmas in 2009 and move the entire operation to Alabama.

“They gave me the option to transfer, but I had just built a house here, and I couldn’t do that,” the 30-year-old Augusta County native says. Stevens applied for other local manufacturing jobs but couldn’t find work, in part because he lacked a college degree. “I had the experience, but I didn’t have the papers,” he says.

Under federal law, Stevens and his co-workers at Mohawk were eligible for retraining, so last fall he enrolled at nearby Blue Ridge Community College, where he is working toward an associate degree in applied technical science in the college’s new Advanced Technology Center.

“It’s wonderful,” Stevens says of the $8 million facility in Weyers Cave, which opened in late August. “It’s got the latest equipment, and it’s given people like myself who are older and been out of school for years the chance to better ourselves.”

Derrick Moneymaker, 28, of Churchville, came to Blue Ridge on the GI bill. The Navy veteran, who worked on FA-18 fighter jets for five years, is impressed by the quality of equipment at the new tech center. “The scopes and meters they have are top-notch,” he says. “It’s a big improvement compared to the old building.”

The center is indicative of the shift in manufacturing from hands-on assembly lines to high-tech equipment with fewer, more skilled operators.

“The No. 1 concern of local employers is work force,” BRCC President John Downey says. “They all have similar stories in the need to train either their incumbent workers or new hires in more high-tech running of machines. To have a place that they helped to design and equip, and to be able to deliver that training in a state-of-the-art facility is very exciting, and I think will be a benefit for the valley.”

The Advanced Technology Center offers programs in manufacturing engineering technology, electronics, engineering, physics, mathematics and automated manufacturing. The first floor of the two-story, 20,000-square-foot building includes a simulated manufacturing lab where students are thinking critically about production and being introduced to the latest numerical control machinery, robotic arms and 3-D plastic printers that make prototypes of machine parts.

When developing programs and choosing equipment, the college consulted with some of the valley’s largest manufacturers, including Merck and MillerCoors in Rockingham County, Polymer Group Inc. in Waynesboro and Hershey Foods in Stuarts Draft, all of which are using the center to help train their future work force.

“The work force in manufacturing is getting older,” says associate professor Jim Russell, who worked for Merck for 27 years prior to joining the faculty at BRCC. “Granted, there’s expertise in that, but those companies are also worried about who’s going to replace the baby boomers, and those individuals need the latest skills.”

The equipment, which was purchased with the help of a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, “is basically a scaled-down version of what you would see in a manufacturing setting, so that the students are not confused by it, not afraid of it, and they have the opportunity to learn how to use it,” Russell says.

The Advanced Technology Center should also serve as an economic development tool, helping to attract and retain manufacturing businesses in the region.

Although overall manufacturing employment in the Valley has fallen about 11 percent between 2008 and 2010, many large companies and specialty manufacturers are continuing to invest in their valley operations because of the region’s reputation for having a quality work force, Russell says. “Our greatest asset is our people, so it’s nice to see these high-tech companies recognizing that fact.”

Cadence Inc., which makes cutting and piercing instruments for industrial, medical and life-science applications, plans to add 65 new jobs over the next three years, thanks to a $15.9 million expansion of its Staunton facility. In March, PGI, a producer of nonwoven fabrics, announced a $65 million expansion in Waynesboro, creating 41 jobs. And New Jersey-based PPI/Time Zero Inc., which makes electronics for the aerospace, defense and medical industries, has established operations at the Solutions Place business center in Waynesboro, adding 65 new jobs.

“About 75 percent of our growth during this period has been expansions, and that’s a trend we’re comfortable with,” says Don “Robin” Sullenberger, chief executive of the Shenandoah Valley Partnership. “As the industrial base expands, the impact on the local economy is sure to be positive.”

Manufacturing expansions are also driving economic development in the northern end of the valley. In Frederick County, O’Sullivan Films, ThermoFisher Scientific and Kraft Foods have all added product lines and jobs in the past 12 to 18 months. Strasburg-based Mercury Paper, which manufactures and distributes household paper products, including bath tissue and paper towels, is ramping up production. And Toray Plastics in Warren County is in line for a corporate expansion that would mean 200 new jobs.

Patrick Barker, executive director of the Winchester-Frederick County Economic Development Commission, points locally to M&H Plastics, Southeastern Container and HP Hood as examples of companies that are well positioned for the future, with small work forces and more automation.

Local officials say many of the outside inquires they are receiving are still coming from manufacturing and distribution companies, which covet the region’s strategic location along the Interstate 81 corridor and the Virginia Inland Port near Front Royal. The port, which receives ocean freight via rail and loads it onto trucks for delivery, is responsible for luring to the valley major retail distribution centers such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Family Dollar.

Manufacturing might be grabbing many of the headlines, but health care is quietly becoming one of the dominant employment sectors in the valley.

“We’re very aware of the impact it’s having on this region,” Sullenberger says.  “From a business development standpoint, it’s likely to develop a stronger job base.”

Most of the hospitals in the region are now part of a Virginia-based health- care system. Winchester-based Valley Health’s footprint now includes facilities in Frederick, Shenandoah, Warren and Page counties, and Rockingham Memorial Hospital recently became part of the Sentara Healthcare system based in Norfolk. “Health care has become much like the rest of the business world — there are competition factors at play,” Sullenberger says.

Meanwhile, the valley’s health-care staffing needs are being met by its colleges and universities, which are producing a variety of medical professionals, from nurses and physician’s assistants to pharmacists and medical transcriptionists.

Health care is also providing a boost for the valley’s fledgling biotech industry. SRI Shenandoah Valley, which opened in 2009 on a 25-acre campus in Rockingham County, has authorized the build-out of the remaining space for its Center for Advanced Drug Research. The center focuses on improving the productivity of the pharmaceutical industry, helping the nation respond to bio-threats and developing life-saving treatments for neglected diseases. During the past two years, SRI has grown from 15 researchers to more than 45. With the build-out, which will take place over the next few years, it will be able to accommodate 100 scientists, researchers and other staff members.

On the horizon, the valley could become a hub for federal agencies looking to move some of their secure operations safely outside the “blast zone” of the Washington metro area.

The FBI, citing space constraints at the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, already has selected a site in the upper Shenandoah Valley to build a Central Records Complex that would employ about 1,200 people locally. The bureau’s initial request in 2007 came in over budget, but the FBI “still has a requirement to acquire a facility” in Frederick County for state-of-the-art records storage and retrieval, plus needed office space, according to a General Services Administration spokeswoman. The FBI currently is leasing more than 100,000 square feet for temporary records storage in an industrial park near Stephens City. That 10-year lease will expire in August 2016.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency moved about 700 of its nonclassified personnel off Mount Weather, a secluded government compound on the line between Clarke and Loudoun counties, into a new disaster operations center north of Winchester in 2008. A secondary lease of a building in Frederick has been extended through March 2013.

Sullenberger says the buzz created by the prospect of federal agencies in the valley has died down during the last several years because of the economic downturn and the change in presidential administrations, but the region is nimble enough to react to new opportunities if and when they arise. “We feel that our proximity to D.C. and to Dulles, with our reputation for high-quality education, our tremendous work ethic and our diverse work force … we can adjust and react to projects of this type,” he says.

Not that the valley is abandoning its agricultural roots. On the contrary, agriculture remains one of the region’s top economic priorities, Sullenberger says. Two of the more significant movements afoot involve developing agritourism and converting animal waste to energy. Programs spearheaded by the regional partnership in those areas are “gaining some significant traction,” he says.

The valley’s airports also are providing a lift, contributing more than $100 million to the local economy last year, according to a report commissioned by the Virginia Department of Aviation. Traffic at Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport in Weyers Cave is improving with the economy, and work has begun at Winchester Regional Airport to bring its main runway up to Federal Aviation Administration standards. Meanwhile, the Front Royal-Warren County Airport recently opened eight new hangars, which officials hope will boost the airport’s profile and make it a magnet for development.

Overall, the Shenandoah Valley is weathering a tough economic climate well, according to Sullenberger.

“There’s a general feeling of optimism here,” he says. “Our economy is diverse enough that we don’t suffer through ominous downturns as long, and we tend to rebound ahead of the curve.” 

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