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Building a Manufacturing Workforce
FVCC grant to develop new programs could help fill local companies’ employment needs
An employee walks across the main floor of Sonju Industrial, Inc. File photo by Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
 Flathead Valley Community College was awarded over $3 million in federal grants last week to help develop and expand training programs in this part of the state, including short-term certificate programs in advanced manufacturing.

That’s good news as far as Jason Sonju, vice president of Sonju Industrial, is concerned. Sonju Industrial, an aerospace component and defense company in Kalispell, is so busy right now that Sonju says he can’t take any more orders this year, and doesn’t have the workforce for more business anyway.

“I’m spending thousands of dollars every month running ads for machinists,” Sonju said in an interview last week. “I am outsourcing some of my work to other machine shops because I am that busy.”

Sonju said his company recently hired four or five machinists, but all were from out of state. Having a program in the Flathead Valley that could not only train machinists but also screen the students to ensure the best fit for the employer would be a solid investment for the valley’s community, he said.

It would give employers the chance to hire local workers, he said, and would give the trained workers a better choice of employment options.

Sonju was one of many local businesses to partner with FVCC in this new training program venture. He said his company came in on the tail-end of the grant process, but was encouraged by the idea that the programs would give the students a better picture of what the work would be like before the student invests time and money in it.

“I really emphasized to (the college) that we need to have some type of system where they can screen these people in a positive way to really emphasize and play out the pros and cons of the job,” Sonju said.

The two federal grants awarded to the college amount to $3,652,969, with about $3 million to be used for helping FVCC respond to the needs of local manufacturing employers. The program is called the Amplifying Montana’s Advanced Manufacturing and Innovation and Industry Project.

The project includes creating more manufacturing programs at the college, as well as adopting a National Career Readiness Certificate assessment of work proficiencies.

The new project also includes creating an entrepreneurship center on the college’s campus, as well as transitioning to a “technology-enabled emporium model of developmental mathematics.”

Wendy Koster, the human resource director for Diversified Plastics in Missoula, said her company partnered with FVCC on this project because it has a need for manual machinists and injection mold technicians.

The classes at FVCC would include teaching skills such as learning how to read blueprints and safety in the workplace, she said, and that would provide a strong background for new employees.

“We have about 55 employees. We’d like to think that we’ll continue to grow and continue to need people with that skill set,” Koster said.

And while Missoula is not in the Flathead Valley, Koster said it is still on the same side of the state and would not mean a far relocation for local workers.

Greg Hayes of Zinc-Air in Columbia Falls said the new program at FVCC is “very exciting and very needed” in the Flathead Valley. His company, which produces batteries for large-scale energy storage, is growing by leaps and bounds and is in “desperate need” of well-trained people.

Zinc-Air expects to start hiring more people at the beginning of next year, Hayes said, and said the classes offered through FVCC’s new program would fit the bill for certain job qualifications, such as a lab technician.

Being able to hire local workers would benefit the company, the business and the community through stimulating economic growth, Hayes said.

“In my opinion that grant will be repaid a number of times over,” Hayes said.

Other partner employers include Raytheon, Applied Materials, Plum Creek, Synergy Aircraft, MC Squared, Defiance, MilTech, Distinctive Countertops, The Montana Rifleman, Inc., Timberline Tool, the Thompson Group and Nomad Global Communication Solutions.
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