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Trained to see the big picture

Those behind new classes in manufacturing hope they'll give Florida an edge in the global economy.

Published June 10, 2007


NEW PORT RICHEY - For many people, assembly line work will forever be defined by the day Lucille Ball and her friend Ethel went to work in a factory wrapping chocolates.

As the line of candy sped past in that 1952 episode of I Love Lucy, the rookie workers took drastic measures to keep up: They ate the product by the frantic handful. What they couldn't eat, they stuffed in their shirts or purses. Anything to avoid stopping the assembly line or getting fired.

Fast-forward to a classroom at Pasco-Hernando Community College, where about 20 young workers - many of them laid off from factory jobs or underemployed - were learning recently just how far the manufacturing world has come.

They are pioneers in a regional effort to develop manufacturing training courses leading to certification with an industry association, the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council, potentially giving both them and the Tampa Bay area an edge in a global economy.

Adjunct professor Joe Roberts, a former auto industry executive who once worked in China for General Motors, was asking these workers to do something nearly unthinkable half a century ago: think.

"We want zero defects and high quality, " Roberts said, offering the example of errors on an automated assembly line. "How can it be an operator error if it was a robot that put the wrong screw in?"

Student Lee Smith offered an astute, 21st century answer. "Programming error?"

The courses in quality control, maintenance, safety and processes were offered free this spring, in partnership with the Employ Florida Banner Center for Manufacturing at Hillsborough Community College. The initiative was supported by $500, 000 in seed money from Workforce Florida Inc.

Officials hope companies will begin sending workers this fall for the courses, or at least take note of graduates who have sought to improve their marketability.

"They're going to come to work with a broad piece of knowledge about manufacturing and a broad picture, " said Gayle Brooks, dean of workforce development at PHCC. "They're not just sitting at their workplace doing their job."

Roberts' lesson on production quality improvement ranged far and wide, with an emphasis on encouraging workers to learn on the job and devise better methods. If a pizza delivery arrives at your house cold, Roberts said, there was a breakdown in production somewhere.

One student recalled the chaos at a spool manufacturing plant where he once worked.

"We were always wondering why things got lost, " he said. "When I was done grinding them, I think I had to push them half a mile. The processes were all over the plant."

Roberts said the program's goal is developing workers who understand the basic concepts of high-end manufacturing, rather than making them experts on production systems such as Lean Manufacturing or Six Sigma, which emulate the success of Japanese companies like Toyota by reducing waste and improving efficiency.

"They've got a leg up, from the standpoint that they're now trainable, " he said.

And that's what companies are looking for, said Lori Rhoden, controller at Lumedyne Inc. in Port Richey.

Her company makes state-of-the-art flash equipment for photographers and employs 25 to 30 workers. Employees who start on the assembly line and show initiative are often transferred into supervisory or specialized roles where they can earn $35, 000 to $75, 000, she said.

"Everyone who works at this company is in charge of quality, " she said. "You don't just build it through and let it get caught at the quality-control department."

And training workers pays off. When Lumedyne implemented the Lean Manufacturing process, its production increased from five units per week to 15 units in three days, Rhoden said.

That's a lesson Florida companies must come to grips with in a hurry, according to many economic development experts.

Florida added high-tech jobs at a faster clip than any state in the nation but Virginia in 2004, earning a third-place ranking with 11, 100 communications manufacturing positions, according to the American Electronics Association.

But overall the state lost manufacturing jobs, with 6, 144 positions and 23 plants going elsewhere in 2005, according to the Florida Manufacturers Register.

In other words, said Hernando County business development director Mike McHugh, the state's manufacturing future lies in a smart work force - not a cheap work force.

"The jobs that have gone offshore typically have been very low-skill type jobs, " he added. "The higher-skill jobs are not the ones going offshore."

Florida companies need trained workers who understand manufacturing, McHugh said, even if the companies have to train them further in their product and methods.

"Quality is quality, whether you're making plastics or an electronics component, " he said.

Tom Marshall can be reached at or 352 848-1431.

[Last modified June 9, 2007, 20:35:53]

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