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Workforce training success stories found around state

Pioneer Aerospace has been in Columbia since 1933, and as the Marion County town’s largest employer is an important cog in the area’s economic wheel. That’s why director of operations Chris Powell is so keen on the workforce training provided to employees by Pearl River Community College (PRCC) through its Lowery Woodall Advanced Technology Center in Hattiesburg.

“They’ve been helping us for many years and have been a key to the improvement for our company,” he said. “We’ve had them come on site for the last few years for basic training and leadership classes. Also, from year to year we have things come up, and they help us. They’ve been a big impact on our operation.”

Powell says Pioneer is basically a sewing plant that has survived because they have government contracts to make parachutes. They are the primary parachute supplier for the U.S. military, the space program and some foreign governments. The Columbia plant has been making parachutes since 1938 and normally employs 200 to 250 people. That number swelled to 400 after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Their production now includes parachutes used for humanitarian efforts.

“The sewing industry has been tough for small companies, but we went to record levels of hiring and performance. It was incredible,” he said. “We’re getting back down to normal and it should stabilize now.”

All of Pioneer’s management team went through PRCC’s leadership classes and many employees have taken a variety of training classes that include basic math, blueprint reading, computer systems, maintenance, CAD software, safety and forklift operation.

“We have had to change attitudes of workers by stressing that speed is not everything. It’s important that we focus on quality, and that requires training,” Powell said. “PRCC comes in during the work day. Many of our employees have no other way to get training. We depend on them, and have an obligation to help them, so we offer these classes for free.”

He added that he can’t thank PRCC enough for always being there for Pioneer Aerospace. “If we can’t figure something out, they’ll come in and do it,” he said.

Ed Felsher is director of PRCC’s training center that’s been located in Hattiesburg since 1994. He says the center has also worked on training projects with Lockheed Martin for its Stennis Space Center operation for the last four years.

“Our role was to assist with training for people who would work in producing satellites and in the meteorology department,” he said. “We trained technicians to work in a very precise and sanitized environment.”

That’s one of several training programs the technology center is involved with at the space center. They also conduct training for a number of clients in the use of GIS technologies that are very useful for law enforcement, agriculture, marine resources, real estate and the military.

In Indianola, Mississippi Delta Community College’s Capps Technology Center has workforce training programs to assist area businesses. One of those is the Super Valu Distribution Center, a division of Lewis Grocer and supplier to 200 retail grocery stores in five states. The company has been a mainstay of the economy since the 1930s and one of Sunflower County’s largest employers.

Human resources director Harry Davis said the company was struggling to meet requirements of employment. “A lot of effort goes into hiring and training employees,” he said. “It costs $2,500 to $3,000 to get an employee 100% ready to work. That includes training and drug tests.”

He said Super Valu wants candidates for employment to have the necessary skills to be good employees, and that these candidates often don’t know what employers expect.

“The training program at the Capps Center was successful. The candidates went every day for six to eight weeks and we now have 260 employees prepared for the 21st century,” he said. “Now in the interim, they’re assisting with training for new hires that we’re doing on site.”

Davis said many people in the area have the heart but not the skills to do a job. These days, everything, including forklifts, at the Super Valu Distribution Center is based on computers. “We must operate that way to be competitive,” he said. “The Capps Center has been invaluable in getting individuals in this region ready to go to work. Training helps the turnover rate dramatically. Ours was cut by half.”

The average age of Super Valu’s employees is 22 with a range of 19 to 32. Many of the jobs are physically demanding, but employees can be promoted to other positions. “The more training we provide, the better the potential is for employees to be successful,” Davis said. “We’ve relied on the Capps Center a great deal to help us and are trying to find new ways to make the workforce prepared and well trained. It’s an ongoing thing.”

Becky Doyle, who handles business information and grant writing for the Capps Center, said the center and community college recognize the importance of training convenience store employees. These employees are often the front line with visitors to the area who ask for directions and what’s going on in the area.

“They have opportunities to make a good impression for the whole area,” she said. “The CEO of Double Quick convenience stores has been complimentary of the training we’ve done for them.”

Doyle said the training focuses on good customer skills that make such a difference, using a cash register, what to do in a robbery and other skills that help the problem of rapid turnovers.

She is also proud of the center’s current carpentry program that is helping dislocated or laid-off workers, many of whom are tractor drivers and farm workers who need to be retrained. The first class has 18 students who will graduate in June at the completion of 214 hours of instruction. With an emphasis on carpentry skills, class members are learning painting, sheet rocking, plumbing and simple wiring.

“The tuition was waived for people not working, and we have an enthusiastic group of people who want to work,” she said. “Although this is not an employment group, our instructors and coordinators will help those graduating locate work. We’re told this should not be a problem.”

Mississippi Delta Community College at Morehead has been offering workforce training for 30 years, and the Capps Center has been operating for three years.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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