Passing the baton: Sharing skills, knowledge in the workplace

April 2010 Posted in Community
What is SEDCOR?
Strategic Economic Development Corp.
745 Commercial St. NE, Salem
503-588-6225

Lead economic development
agency for Marion and Polk Counties.

Composed of more than 500 business
and community leaders, it is a private,
non-profit organization whose mission
is to enhance and diversify the economy
of the Mid-Willamette Valley.

By Jay Shenai

It takes a lot to stump an engineer.

Bob Topping, director of Industry Partnerships at the Chemeketa Center for Business and Industry, recalls the time he went with engineers on a visit to a local school to assess and rehabilitate its vocational training program. Because of budget cuts the school hadn’t used any of its drill presses or lathes in seven years.

When Topping and the engineers asked about the curriculum for the program, school officials were at a loss.

“The guy who taught the class had the curriculum in his head, and he retired,” Topping said.

Well, does he live around here? the engineers asked.

No, he died, was the reply.

“That’s what we’re trying to avoid,” Topping said, “all these people, these very talented, highly skilled people retire, and take all that skill, and all that talent, with them, without passing some of it on.”

Through the IMOM – shorthand for Industrial Maintenance Operator/ Mechanic – training program, Topping and others hope to prevent the loss of this communal knowledge, especially as a large percentage of the workforce approaches retirement.

According to some analysts, roughly 40 percent of the current workforce is approaching the traditional age of retirement. Nick Harville, IMOM coordinator with the Strategic Economic Development Corporation, or SEDCOR, believes it to be higher in the mid-Willamette Valley area.

“We’re finding that in some of our key industries it’s actually up into the 50 percent range,” he said.

IMOM is an industry-driven workforce training program designed to advance the talent capabilities of existing employees in the mid-Willamette Valley, and to transfer the real-world skills learned on the job to the next generation of employees.

A joint effort of SEDCOR and Chemeketa, IMOM received the Outstanding Collaborative Partnership award from the Oregon Economic Development Association last October.

Since last July, Topping and Harville have taken information gleaned from surveys of 30 area businesses, and developed a training curriculum in which “core competencies,” or certain skills critical to each business’ operations, are identified, as are workers with those skills who are trained to teach them to others.

Sometimes they are talents that would go unnoticed if not for IMOM, Topping said. He cites the example of one factory’s machine operator who applied labels to outgoing products at the end of the line. A 26-year veteran, he was 99 percent efficient in applying labels, but no one had any idea how he did it, in part because he didn’t speak fluent English.

He even had an unbelievable talent for telling whether various types of paper would jam the label maker.

“Simply by touching them,” Topping said. “Can you imagine that?”

Currently there are 30 certified master trainers through the program.

The feedback has been amazing, Harville said. Demand for the program from businesses has been almost overwhelming.

“I’ve got one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake,” he said. “We’re delivering what companies told us they want.”

Businesses love the program, Harville said, because it helps them maintain their workforce by raising the overall skill set of their workforce through cross-training. It also helps them maintain their performance, especially during the current economic downturn when companies have been forced to cut back on their internal training budgets.

Most important, though, Topping and Harville both believe the IMOM program will be one of the engines that pull the area out of recession.

In targeting skill sets, they have also identified specific talent pools in the workforce capable of feeding multiple businesses, like workers assembling components for buses at one business, who could also serve a local RV manufacturer well, or technicians for programmable logic controller systems who were able to support Salem’s new Sanyo Solar plant.

They have also identified knowledge and assets unique to the area, Topping said, like keen insight into industrial refrigeration, built up in support of local industrial agriculture and breweries.

Because of the established presence of industrial agriculture in Salem and its abundant supply of organic matter, Topping also believes biomass, or power generation through plant matter or waste, could make Salem a major player in the new green economy.

“The opportunities in this region are amazing.”

Ultimately, for both Harville and Topping, it’s about selling the area’s most valuable resource: its people.
We’re connecting our skills to markets, not just our products, Topping said.

“It protects our markets, protects our talent pool and stops companies from leaving the area,” he said.

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