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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Liu

Interview : Workforce Development From the Perspective of an Industry Expert

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

An Interview with Bill Donohue, President at GENEDGE

September 2nd, 2022


Discussion Summary:


Gateway collects data about workforce needs to ensure that its students are prepared for open job opportunities. Through Gateway’s “customized training approach,” manufacturing employers can modify Gateway’s curriculums to fit their skill requisites.


The presence of manufacturing in any community is often hidden because people only see an end product, not the process by which it is made. To get more people interested in manufacturing as a career path, the sector’s relevance to the daily lives of Americans must be emphasized.


Americans should start learning about manufacturing from high school age or younger, so that youth who aspire to start manufacturing careers can embark on the appropriate educational pathway early through dual enrollment and transferrable college courses and then go on to receive post-secondary two-year or four-year degrees.


Could give me a bit of background on the economic scene of the Martinsville region, especially pertaining to manufacturing?


Sure. So first off, I think, you know, I’m not in Martinsville. Okay. But that’s where our company is based. And I live closer to DC now. So yeah, but I’m down there routinely. So, Martinsville went into some substantial economic decline, probably in the late 90s. When DuPont shut down a very large textile facility. That facility employs 1000 people. So, if you think about it, it’s a man, it was a manufacturer. So, if you think about what the multiplier is, the manufacturing has the number of people that were affected? Well, you could figure at that point in time, the average family had about five people. You can also figure that the multiplier effect is, you know, potentially close to two. So, in the end, that plant shutting down affected over 60,000 people. And that’s one of the things that is unique about manufacturing. Manufacturing, because of its supply chain activities, tends to supply, let’s call it supply chain and value chain, it tends to have a unique benefit. But also, a unique to traction when things don’t go well. Okay. That was the beginning of a large loss of textile industry in the area, coupled with a loss in the furniture industry. And it is to the point where the city of Martinsville itself struggles to actually be an independent city and in the state. And there has been a lot of activity to try to get them to have a reversion to where they would actually be a town and would participate and would get governance out of the county.


I came across a website that listed a few of the major employers in Martinsville and I saw that services sector is the biggest employment sector, but the manufacturing sector is still second largest.


So that depth began in the mid 90s. Okay. And now, the manufacturing sector in that area has begun to grow again. Okay. And it’s grown with some companies who’ve grown organically. And it’s also grown as they’ve been able to attract new sectors. Okay, and that attraction was predominantly driven by the availability of industrial parks. The availability of a workforce, which similarly attracted a lot of the service industry and what it’s attracted is predominantly Rate distribution, tax and total tele centers, those haven’t gone very well. But as a strong distribution network, I think that’s because with the manufacturing intensity that they had their, the trucking industry was very strong. Because the trucking industry is strong. Well, it it’s been able to be an asset that has attracted distribution centers.


So, for instance, the Nautica center has a big DC there, they were attracted by the fact that, you know, there it has a unique distribution hub, where the hubs are essentially locally owned. The drivers are local. Okay. So that was an asset that was available. Plus, again, having an industrial park that they were able to build out very nicely to be able to match their needs. And with a workforce that was interested in that type of work.


What is Martinsville’s struggle with recruiting and retaining a workforce?


That’s a good question. Um, so believe it or not, it’s not easy. Okay. So, the theory has seen population declines. What’s kind of say the workforce has right sized itself, Southern Virginia also has a challenge in the workforce is not just how many available people do you have working age, it’s how many participate in the workforce. Southside Virginia has the lowest participation rate in any area of Virginia. And it’s in the low 60s. So, in a lot of cases, people ended up because of the fact that it’s a low cost of living area. Because there are programs that are available to provide different means of currency to live. There are a lot of people who could be in the workforce who choose not to.


There’s also the skill gap that exists for the people who do choose to go in the workforce. Would you say that? Sometimes they don’t have the skill sets that meet the technological means of meaning.


So rural Virginia, and actually, rural America became very popular to put factories and you know, if you recall, if you studied your history, you’ll see that factories actually predominated in cities for quite a while. And they did that because of the abundance of population that was available. As cities began to get more expensive, naturally, if you’re in high touch labor, businesses, you may consider and manufacturing became less important to those cities, who typically moved to services. manufacturers began to look elsewhere for workers. That was also driven by the fact that unionization had occurred, particularly in the Northeast. So as a result, you had textile businesses in particular, have always saw low-cost labor and to this day still do. The only thing is right now about the cheapest labor that’s available is penguins in Antarctica, they’ve gone about as far as they can. Okay. And I don’t think the penguins are very good employees. So, so in this case, one of the things that rural America has provided is the fact that most of the recruiting came off of kids who were raised on farms. If you’re raised on farms, what he learned to do, um, agriculture, learn to work with your hands. Okay? Learn to work with your dad or your mom. As part of the I mean, kids get employed in early age, all right. They learn to operate tractors. They learn to fix tractors. They learn how to operate and fix baling equipment. So as a result, their mechanical aptitude naturally was very high. Now, since then, kind of a second wave hit. The second wave that hit was the predominant crop that was grown in Southern Virginia, is what you’ll recall. So, tobacco was really the predominant crop. Tobacco is a cash crop. Right. And as a cash crop, it’s grown on very small farms. A person could make a lot of money off of a 30-acre farm. 30 acres, okay, my wife grew up on a dairy farm. For a dairy farm these days. If you don’t have 1500, head of cattle, you can’t stay in business. When she grew up, they her parents can stay in business with 80 head of cattle. That’s how much that industry is scaled. So, a lot of the cropland, so when there was a tobacco settlement with the states and with the tobacco companies, the bulk of those tobacco companies left the area. And those farms no longer are producing tobacco. And oh, by the way, there’s no other cash crop to replace it. With the exception of perhaps marijuana. Okay. So today, very much like probably anywhere that you go, to be able to find a workforce that’s readily able to participate and be a good technician or an employee without additional focus training is very difficult to do. But it helps to understand what got you there. Okay.


Just like efforts with organizational development, I saw that there are a lot of partnerships with educational institutions, for example, I saw JMU, and I think I saw a few community colleges as well. So, I was wondering how GENEDGE works with those post-secondary institutions?


Yeah, that’s a good question. So, our workforce, our services in the workforce area had been limited. There are some reasons for that. But with the universities, what we have done is, we provide a conduit to help the university students gain direct industrial experience. So, for instance, at Virginia Tech, we invest in the senior design project at the greatest School of Industrial Engineering, and we help make matchmaking and then we provide technical assistance for about 45 projects that are conducted with companies basically all over the United States. And in that case, what we try to do is Um, there was it was a strategic effort that we did with Virginia Tech because their reputation had begun to decline out of the school. They were like, number 10 in the country. So, what we did was we said, well, you know, one of the things that we can do is we’re consultants. Have you thought about the fact that the bulk of your employees are getting hired by the consulting industry. And they were getting hired by the beltway bandits, you know, khaki, ATK McKinsey. Um, so what we ended up doing was we upfitted the curriculum with what we call core consulting skills. And then we invested in a director for the program and a read, we have a resource manager there who actually coach the teams, in addition to the faculty advisors. So, the teams actually approach their work as a consultant would. program is now number two in the country. That’s the primary reason. So, in terms of our greatest success, we’re very excited about that. We have a, we have a new initiative that we’re running with them, which is there, they’ve now set up an industry for automation shop, that have you read about industry four. Okay, so they have that they now have that tool set that they’re able to apply in their project activities. And the manufacturing sector, even though it’s these are great things, it’s having difficulty taking on the new technology, so they help us do their next phase will be to help us do that more, with companies who need help, in putting a call bottom, okay, in using augmented reality for their work instructions, in using a digital twin of their factory to better planet, both from physical plant perspective and actually to run their products through it. So that’s, that’s an example of Virginia State, Virginia state’s helping us in supply chain. So, we work with our Honors Program, we have an honors team that’s working on developing a total cost of ownership calculator, that will be in the cloud. It’ll be operated out of this business unit called the Commonwealth Center for Advanced logistics, see cows. And what this does is you’ve heard of reshoring; I was reshoring is big 330,000 Jobs came back to America last year. And that’s the fat that’s the most growth that manufacturing has seen in the US, and 30 years. So that tool is designed to help companies do a make go through better decision making on how to source products, and how to make products that have to compete with offshore sources.


Old Dominion University, we have a makerspace. They operate a makerspace there that is student managed. It’s very unique. It uses a model that was developed in Germany. We’re an investor in that program. And what we do with them is we have helped them to put the appropriate safety equipment into the facility. So that unless you’ve taken a training course on how to use the equipment safety, and you’ve got a badge that’s been encoded, you can’t operate that equipment. So, we made sure that it was intrinsically safe. Now with that now what we’re doing is we’re helping them to market their services to local companies and get projects. And at JMU, where we’re helping them is in the development of a call it a pre-production makerspace. That’s a design studio for manufactured products. And we’re actually helping them to design that and figure out how to outfit that appropriately. And then and then to set up a supply chain of companies that actually can make the prototypes as they attempt to go to market. So, it doesn’t have manufacturing capability. It has all the neat from the stuff that one does with, you know, computer animated graphics, etc., to actually design things.


What are your thoughts on automation’s role in the manufacturing industry?


Oh, so first off, I wouldn’t worry about automation. There are not enough people going around. We have to automate. If we don’t automate, we will not be able to compete. That was not always the case. But it is definitely the case now. People cannot find enough worker’s period. So, for suffer these students, it’s all about how do you maximize your value to your, your employer or your customer? And so previously, before we started with the program, all of the student intern programs were run free of charge. They are now 100% Paid for by the customer companies, because of the value that they’re able to demonstrate using a consulting model.


I know that engineering is in itself in demand, and I do know that the people who do end up going into engineering may not necessarily be attracted to work in these rural areas or go to these rural manufacturers.


Oh, well, I was just at a conference in southwest Virginia. And we’re actually we’re in a panel on. So, it’s kind of interesting you bring this up, things have changed. What happened in the pandemic? What happened? What happened to the migration of people? Are they go

they were at home, they were at home, but in many cases, they left the city. Cities all lost population substantially during the pandemic. So, the biggest barrier that you have, in my opinion, is access to high-speed broadband. And in Virginia, we will completely build out access to high-speed broadband by 2024. So, so, the second thing is, you know, having internet rural area, having the ability to replicate some of the attractiveness that you have in urban centers, that’s happening. Okay. Starbucks is everywhere. All right. You’ll find that in places like Danville, trying to think of Lynchburg, which are small cities, the quality of life there is very high. Abingdon, Virginia, same way. So, what you’ll find is that old warehouses, downtowns are all being revitalized. lofts are being put in. And breweries are being built. distilleries are being built. And so, as a results, with broadband, you can have a mighty fine life, and it costs a lot less money. You know, I’ve put up in traffic. Or you could still be working at your old employer, if you’re in a position where you have a distance work agreement. All my employees are on still on virtual work. Now they have to work with a client base. There are times when they definitely have to go in the office. I have employees who prefer working in the office and they do but they don’t have to. Now, in a manufacturing environment, that doesn’t really work. In a healthcare environment, it really doesn’t. Okay. Get a service industry, that really doesn’t work unless you’re just Amazon or Walmart. When you’re just doing fulfillment. So, and I do believe people are social, social people, right. But as education becomes more available online, and we’re having to move our offerings to online offerings, based upon the demand and the customer base, you’ll find that rural areas now have an opportunity. Yeah, and so I guess it’s about CAP making your location as a whole not just the employer just more or you know, Southwest Virginia’s beautifies Washington virgin Virginia is beautiful place. I you know, so there’s plenty, there’s plenty of Charlottesville is a wonderful location. You know, Blacksburg is a wonderful location. So that’s the only thing you’re seeing the university centers are growing. Okay. But a lot of that is still a rural lifestyle. Okay, so rural has a place but the biggest divide biggest issue is broadband. Okay. Yeah. And I guess like with that is even if you educate your rural community, they may not be attracted to come back to their home after being educated.


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