Program enhances county’s manufacturing talent

JAMESTOWN — Cummins Jamestown Engine Plant adheres to a “grow from within” philosophy, offering its more than 1,500 employees a cadre of educational opportunities to evolve their skills and better support the plant’s production of diesel and natural gas-powered engines.

The five-month Certified Production Technician (CPT) program is certainly another avenue for employees to “keep bread on the table,” in the words of Cummins plant manager Mike Abbate. It made its Jamestown debut in fall 2016 through the facilitation of University at Buffalo’s Center for Industrial Effectiveness, in coordination with the Center for Continuing Education at Jamestown Community College.

But company leaders also view CPT as a tool to enrich Chautauqua County’s manufacturing base.

They are touting the nationally accredited program — which distills the core knowledge required of frontline manufacturing jobs — beyond company walls. Their efforts won endorsement of the Manufacturers Association of the Southern Tier. They piqued the interest of the Jamestown and Chautauqua Lake school districts, which plan to implement the foundational training at the high school level.

The reason for Cummins’ outreach is simple, according to human resources manager/community involvement leader Lori Jafarjian: “We need to develop a talent pipeline of qualified candidates.”

Abbate has worked at the Cummins facility for 36 years, the past five as plant manager. He has witnessed a steady change in technology, marked by an accelerated pace in recent years.

Equipment, he acknowledges, is important. But it won’t keep the plant open. “It’s going to be the people who make the difference,” he told a CPT graduates at a luncheon celebration recently.

Abbate is referring to people such as Richard Digirolamo Jr. and his wife, Laurie, who have a combined 43 years of company service. Despite decades since being in a formal classroom and personal obstacles, they accepted the CPT challenge.

“I’ve been a machine operator my whole time here and back in the old days, we didn’t have many chances for training to better ourselves,” Laurie Digirolamo said. “So a lot of job opportunities slipped away from me. I don’t want that to keep happening.”

The program entails online education and assessments paired with classroom learning facilitated by TCIE director of operational excellence Peter Baumgartner. Curriculum focuses on safety, quality practices and measurement, manufacturing processes and production, and maintenance awareness. CPT materials were created by the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council, a national training, assessment and certification system.

Any non-exempt employee with a good performance record is eligible to apply for the program. A new session of 16 candidates begins every six months.

“We’re really appreciative of the ability to offer the program through UB and JCC, and that they’re open to continuously improving the instructional material,” Jafarjian said. “And we have received phenomenal feedback about the instructor, Pete. Our employees have really appreciated what he’s taught them and the experience he’s brought to the table.”

To date, 46 employees have passed the program’s four assessments to achieve certification. Among them is Kyle Weilacher, a 10-year Cummins veteran. The CPT is helping him navigate an apprentice program for machine repair.

He enjoyed learning the mechanics behind an automated system – such as levers, springs and switches – and said the CPT’s format and simulation environment made for an easy grasp of concepts.

“It’s actually helped me at home,” he said, referencing material and class discussions about directional valves. “I’ve had to repair a couple (of valves) on my tractor. Now I understand how they work.”

Other CPT grads like Kurt Meekins appreciate the terminology they now have in their arsenal, and received a confidence boost when realizing company practices align with industry standards. It has also provided answers for those who question the relevancy of procedures to Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.

Meekins, an engine line cell leader employed at the company for 15 years, is optimistic the certification will qualify him for new job opportunities. Some plant postings now include a preference for candidates who are CPT certified.

The CPT also merits extra points in the competitive application process for any of Cummins’ six skilled trades apprentice programs, including the one attended by Weilacher. Targeted at hard-to-fill or highly skilled positions, apprenticeships are registered through the New York State Department of Labor. They consist of 8,000 hours of on-the-job training paired with education from JCC and/or other providers. After approximately four and a half years, successful apprentices emerge with a state journey worker card.

Cummins is registering a new skilled trades apprentice program — mechanical engineering technician — to address the complexity of current and future products. Candidates must possess CPT certification.

“We want candidates for this apprentice program to demonstrate a base knowledge of manufacturing and the ability to actively engage in an educational program past high school,” Jafarjian said in explaining the CPT criteria. “The CPT provides the fundamental knowledge to start in the technician field, and also shows initiative and ability to complete a program.”

The new apprenticeship launches in fall 2018 or January 2019, with an expected inaugural class of 12.

A new group of Cummins employees began the CPT program in January. In February, another six joined the journey as part of a TCIE-JCC consortium with enrollees from other organizations. All consortium participants are eligible for a grant from the Workforce Development Institute of Western New York to reduce training costs.

One candidate, a Chautauqua Lake Central School technology teacher, enrolled after the district’s superintendent and board of education president learned about it from Jafarjian at a Chautauqua County Education Coalition meeting.

The CPT is a natural complement to the district’s multi-layered tactic of instilling manufacturing skills. Pre-engineering courses available through the nationwide Project Lead the Way (PLTW) program, in cooperation with Rochester Institute of Technology, are empowering students to “take an idea from concept and design all the way through production and a finished product,” said Benjamin Spitzer, Chautauqua Lake Central School district superintendent.

An extracurricular Manufacturers Club hatched in fall 2015 triggered curricular enhancements: two courses on drawing and design for production now include manufacturing components, and a PLTW computer integrated manufacturing offering was added. As of next fall, four JCC manufacturing courses will be taught at Chautauqua Lake for college credit. And a recent capital improvement project funded a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) lab at the secondary school. It includes computer numerical control machines, a lathe, mill and other equipment.

Intentions are to offer the CPT as a capstone course to high school seniors beginning in September, after the technology teacher completes the course and undergoes instructor training.

The CPT, Spitzer said, is “an opportunity, perhaps, for our students to go to the front of the line in an interview process. It will be nice to have our students graduate with this in hand and be able to transition right into the workforce.”

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