Finding the Door to the Goldmine through the Manufacturing Academy at WWRC- Episode 12

Transcript of podcast follows

Rick Sizemore (Rick) Welcome to the VR workforce Studio. Today on Episode 12 we answer one of the most compelling workforce and disability employment questions of the modern age. “Where is the door to the goldmine?” You’ll get the answers in an interview with a retired senior engineer from the Hershey Company and past president of Margin Development Training. Compelling answers and strategies to help individuals with disabilities not only find the door to the goldmine but we open it up and take a look inside at the opportunities that exist for those interested in the new wave of jobs in manufacturing.

I’m Rick Sizemore along with Co-Host Anne Hudlow (Anne) here in the VR Workforce Studio. We are bringing you the inspiring stories of how individuals with disabilities are overcoming the obstacles to employment as we celebrate the champions of business and industry that hire individuals with disabilities as well as the vocational rehabilitation professionals who dedicate their lives and careers to helping individuals with disabilities go to work so they can lead more productive lives, build up our workforce and move the Virginia Economy forward. Stories from the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center published by the WWRC Foundation at

Rick – Anne we have lots of exciting things going on.

Anne – I love the show title- Where is the door to the goldmine. Well I know where one door is….because we continue to hear is how forklift training and experience often provides a gateway to employment in numerous fields, especially the manufacturing environment. I talked to a WWRC Trainee, Aaron Laznow and he said the first time on a forklift was a little unnerving but with practice he now feels confident about the fork truck and in getting a job.

I was a little nervous at first because you don’t know if you are going to scrape it on the side or the top. But once you get the hang of it, its just like driving a car except your steer it with wheels in the rear. I think it will help me get a job because the more you know the more you are likely to get the job you want.

Anne – And walking through that employers door with the skills needed to get that job is what WWRC’s program is all about. We are really excited about Aaron and everyone who is training at WWRC. Our Foundation is designed to help vocational rehabilitation at WWRC. If you’d like to know more check us out at

Rick – Jim Leech is a retired senior engineer with over 20 years of project management and process system design experience with the Hershey Company in Stuarts Draft, Virginia. After leaving Hershey, he joined Blue Ridge Community College as the Program Head for their Manufacturing Engineering Technology program where he instructed and developed four of the curriculum’s course books including texts on Industrial Technology, Business Management, Manufacturing Economics and Industrial Automation.

Prior to Joining the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center where he is now employed as the Manufacturing Technology Training Instructor and with the responsibility for the program’s curriculum development, Jim operated a management consulting business entitled Margin Development Training, LLC which consulted with plants throughout the Shenandoah Valley on margin improvement and skills training for maintenance and technology based employees. Jim now works with individuals with disabilities at the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center helping them prepare for job in manufacturing.   Jim Leech welcome to the VR Workforce Studio.

Jim – Glad to be here with you today, Rick.

Rick– Jim we are constantly hearing about how manufactures are looking for skilled and credentialed workers in Virginia and how the pipeline of potential candidates is a major issue.   You’ve worked in manufacturing a long time, what do you think the answer is to finding workers for all these jobs that becoming available in modern manufacturing?

Jim – Well, Rick, there are a couple of things to look at when considering a job in the manufacturing sector of our state’s economy. The first is there are a lot of jobs to consider with literally hundreds of different jobs found throughout the world of manufacturing. Many of these require specific skills to do, however most of the jobs required a basic knowledge of a variety of skills, such as math, reading and comprehension, etc. to move through the doors of a plant and be ready for the plant to begin training you for what they want you to do. I can’t overemphasize the need to have these basic skills.

The second consideration for the person thinking about seeking employment in the manufacturing sector revolves around finding out what actually occurs inside of the plant in the production of the product produced there. What I mean here is the fact many in our society including parents, teachers and even friends do not understand the skills a person must have to work in a modern manufacturing plant, nor do they understand the rewards that come with the work. For example, a local company starting up in the Shenandoah Valley is paying its beginning employees $20/hr, with benefits! That is equal to annual earnings of over $40,000 per year! This plant is so clean you could eat off of the floor, and they will train their new employee in their job at their cost.

We really need to get through this concept of an old, dirty work environment. Many people working in manufacturing routinely earn more than other non-farm payroll jobs. The other issue is job security. I read on-line this morning hiring in manufacturing is at the highest rate since August 2013! This means the jobs are in high demand, for those with the skill sets to interview and be hired. When you put medical benefits on top of job security and pay, it is a field of work that rivals the traditional four year college degree.
Rick – Jim, when you say manufacturing jobs of today –how are they different and how are they changing.

Jim – Well, as I mentioned, many of the plants are very clean, with bright well lighted environments to promote production efficiencies and support a feeling of satisfaction in being employed at the company. It is very expensive not only to hire the wrong person, but also to release that person and begin to seek someone else for the job. Companies want long term employees, who are a part of the ‘team’ and work well with others. When you consider all of the training you will get as the years go by, your value to the company increases, along with your pay.

Rick – Jim its fine that we have all these jobs but how do you make the case that they are good job for, well anyone, but in particular individuals with disabilities?

Jim – Again, when we see the demand in manufacturing for good employees due to the baby-boomers retiring and the growth in most of the companies, the worker with disabilities, with proper skills, offers the employer a reliable and dedicated worker that can perform equal to the non-disabled worker in many jobs. Statistics and data back up this claim. Industry wants to hire the disabled on many levels, but at the end of the day, the worker with disabilities as does the non-disabled worker, must perform at the expected level of contributing to the bottom line of the company. With training and possible other support efforts, the worker with disabilities today has never had a better opportunity to move into manufacturing and demonstrate what they can do on the job.

Rick – Having worked in manufacturing and knowing the demands of that environment and now being a person who helps individuals with disabilities prepare for employment, how do you make the case that it’s a good match?

Jim – The first thing that WWRC does is to evaluate every consumer entering the center to determine their abilities and their limitations. This is a very specific process and is driven by professional knowledge of assessments and our consumer needs.

Secondly, the consumer (with consultation) selects the field of training they wish to enter- so there is a true desire that this might be what they wish to do. This is very important. The new Manufacturing Technology Training program is a twenty week curriculum aimed at preparing the consumer with the desire to enter manufacturing, by giving them the basic skill sets and credentials they will need to succeed after being hired by a company in Virginia.

When you combine both the desire to choose a career in manufacturing along with the tremendous skills training they will be given, the result is a dedicated, knowledgeable and motivated individual that should do very well on their job.

Rick – what would you say to the skeptics……who doubt that individuals with disabilities can do this work?

Jim – Again, manufacturing has changed tremendously in my working career. There is still a need for assembly line work, or warehouse work, but many jobs today require the ability to think and react to the process, with many operators now controlling the machines through touch panel screens and programs. Even maintenance employees today must understand solid-state instruments, and controllers, be able to read technical prints and drawings, and think correctly as to how to repair or bring the machines back on line. These are very valuable skills that can be done by the disabled worker as well as the non-disabled worker.


Rick – So what is on the horizon to reach out to youth with disabilities who are interest in a technical field?

Jim – First, we need to improve their exposure to the sciences while they are in high-school, or even before. Programs that introduce how machines work, why math is important, what is critical thinking and how to solve problems begin to promote interests they can then further pursue as they seek out other and broader interests in this technical world.

An example of this is the Manufacturing Academy we are planning in late spring at the WWRC for those young people with qualifying disabilities. For one week, these students will be exposed to a number of STEM (Science Technology, Engineering and Math), environments, culminating in the building of a solar powered, water treatment plant where we will draw water from our on-campus lake, filter and treat the water, then bottle it on a production line. Every student will have a role to play with the effort being measured by the success of the team, not the individual.

Rick – Jim, we are getting support for a variety of sources for the Academy and other manufacturing initiative. One of those sources is the Career Pathways for Individuals with Disabilities grant, which is a significant grant involving numerous partners to help create pathways to employment. Dr. Joe Ashley, who we have on schedule for an interview about his amazing story and to talk about the grant has a new project manager, Emily West. Emily stopped by and had this to say about the Academy.

Emily West – I think there are some misconceptions of modern manufacturing and I’m really looking forward to coming up and see the PERT students.

Rick – Where are the participants from this coming from?

Jim – The participants who will come to campus for the Academy experience are coming from the PERT program or Postsecondary Education Rehabilitation Transition which is designed to transition those young people with qualifying disabilities into the training programs available at WWRC, and on to the world of work.

Rick – What do you expect to accomplish in the academy?

Jim – First, WWRC is fortunate to have access to funding form various grants such as the newly passed Career Pathway Grant, which will supply funding for a number of our training efforts, such as this Manufacturing Academy.

This manufacturing academy on the WWRC campus is designed to offer an exposure to many of the skills and interests they may not have had prior to their visit to campus.

For example, they will be learning to study and report on how a manufacturing process works and document its flow. From this, we will then visit a local manufacturing company to observe and ask questions on a real process.

The academy participants will work in teams for understanding the important relationship in work as to how to work with others towards a common goal.

Finally, they will be exposed to a number of small, hands-on, exercises giving them a view into the actual methods and procedures used in manufacturing to produce a product.

All of this and more, begins to open the door to understanding the importance the sciences and math play in all manufacturing facilities. If they then desire, they can seek a further evaluation as they come to the WWRC campus as a consumer, and actually enter into the main Manufacturing Technology Training program which will then prepare them for rewarding employment at companies throughout Virginia.

The training labs in the Manufacturing Technology Training program are designed to simulate many of the conditions and skill development needs the consumer will need to understand before leaving the training. The goal is to give them the skills and knowledge that will make them successful in their career field.

Rick – What have your learned about individuals with disabilities since joining the team at WWRC?

Jim – It has been one of the more rewarding experiences of my working career. In instructing many of our consumers, I have discovered how they want to learn and achieve, just like any other young person. They want to be accepted and given the chance to succeed on their own and earn their own way. I have a lot of respect of an individual who through their disability, finds their ability.

Rick – What message would you have for manufactures who have not hired someone with a disability yet?

Jim – Talk to us at the center if there are questions or concerns about hiring our training graduates. A huge amount of work has gone into preparing our consumers to not only have the job skills, but also the personal skills such as being on the job on time, working well with others in a team, being reliable and able to learn new things. When a perspective employer can interview one of our consumers, they will find an individual who just wants to be given a chance and contribute to the work group, just like any other employee.

Rick – What advice would you have for a young person who is considering employment possibilities?

Jim – Work hard to absorb the training. The instructors are extremely knowledgeable in their areas of curriculum and truly WANT you to succeed. But you must do your part to be in class, be alert and gain the knowledge they are trying to give you. Above all, have a positive attitude towards what you are doing and how it can affect the rest of your life. That is the mission of the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center, here in Fishersville, VA.

Rick – So what’s after the academy?

Jim – Two things to look at, here. The first is the new MTT program is now coming together with modern equipment being purchased to fill the manufacturing technology lab which will allow the consumer to truly enjoy and be amazed with the technology used in industry today, including a new 3D printer we have purchased and a machine that will carve objects in soft materials such as wood through a computer program. This program and its associations with the state of Virginia, the Virginia Manufacturer’s Association, the Manufacturing Skills Institute and our many partners from the WWRC foundation under Anne Hudlowe’s guidance to our DARS partners in the field have established an unprecedented opportunity for our consumers here at WWRC and the disabled workers across the state.

The second thing to view is the fact this is just the start. As the program grows, more consumers will be welcomed into it, and the manufacturing businesses throughout the state will begin to take notice of a new resource of talent to fill their work place vacancies as the baby-boomers retire and the need for qualified employees continues to increase. This center, and its foundation partner, will play a major role in allowing the disabled workforce of Virginia to play a part in the success of the over 1500 companies throughout Virginia.

Rick – Anne, how you partnering with the Jim on this initiative.

Anne – well through the podcast we have become really good friends with Vanessa Rastberger at manufacturing skills institute (MSI) and by the way if you haven’t listened to episode 11B featuring Vannessa as she facilitates a panel on MSI and all they are doing to work with partners all around the state, you have to check it out. So MSI is helping us reach out to manufacturers all across the state, many of them are also finding the door to the goldmine….but I look at it a little differently, they see a potential goldmine of credentialed job seekers to help fill their jobs. Many have not hired individuals with disabilities before so during the academy we are holding a breakfast for plant managers and HR directors who want to come out and see what WWRC is doing to reduce the interest gap and I tell you it is going be fun to see this operation. We have DARS consumers coming from all across the state we are working with our agency business development managers and staff to really spread the word about this dynamic new program with tons of potential. So if you want to be part of this you can contact me at anne.hudlowe@comcast .net   by the way always feel free to visit us at to find out about partnering with us as we support the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center and their important work.

End of Interview.

Episode 11- B: Conclusion of Interview with VMA

In this episode we’ll conclude our interview with the VMA as well as highlights from the VMA Workforce Symposium Panelist with co-host Vanessa Rastberger. Read more

Episode 11a: Manufacturing Jobs on the Horizon

Note: click image for caption and image details.

Hear about Opportunities for Individuals with Disabilities and Reflections on Workforce Development from VMA Workforce Development Director, Katherine DeRosear. Read more

Episode 10-b: Conclusion of WWRC Winter Graduation

Episode 10-a: Waynesboro Public School’s Signature Singers Inspire and Delight at WWRC Graduation