The Dan River Region’s precision machining programs not only brought Virginia’s top elected official to Danville on Tuesday, it attracted another state’s governor as well.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and Arkansas Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson toured the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research and other facilities to provide an example to Hutchinson and his delegation of community investment in workforce training.
“After seeing it, I’m glad that I came,” Hutchinson told the Danville Register & Bee following a tour of the Institute and its Gene Haas Center for Integrated Machining. “It’s an amazing investment in the community and its future.”
Fort Smith, Arkansas, has lost thousands of manufacturing positions to Mexico, so the area has an opportunity to invest in workforce training and attract jobs like the Dan River Region has, the out-of-state governor explained.
“The pipeline for skilled workers is crucial to that,” he said.
Northam and Hutchinson and their delegations later toured George Washington High School and Danville Community College to see their precision machining training facilities, and the Regional Center for Advanced Technology and Training.
During an interview after the Gene Haas Center tour, Northam said economic development is vital for Virginia. Though the state’s unemployment rate is about 3.7 percent, some areas are doing better than others, he said.
Northam, a pediatric neurologist who hails from Virginia’s rural Eastern Shore, praised the Dan River Region’s precision machining programs.
“They’re really bringing skills to jobs,” he said, adding that this century’s jobs are much different from those of the previous one.
When asked what he planned to do to improve the economic situation in the Dan River Region, Northam said, “Let the Southside know we’re here to help them.”
That includes funding for higher education, he said.
“We’re all in this together,” Northam said, adding that he wants to make Virginia the best place to do business.
The Gene Haas Center is designed to replicate the real world working experience with quality, high-tech machines. On its website, the center bills itself as a “precision machining training model that answers industry-expressed needs for a highly skilled 21st century workforce.”
Part of a regional training pipeline, the Gene Haas Center offers advanced skills training focused on lean manufacturing principles on machines and processes found on factory floors.
Troy Simpson, the center’s manager and the director of advanced manufacturing at DCC, said the program is starting to get the attention it deserves.
“This program now, after three to four years of development, has started to be recognized,” he said after the tour.
The visit from the two governors “speaks volumes” to the work, vision and investment by the community, Simpson said.
“It shows a community working together to provide opportunities to citizens of the region,” Simpson said.
During the tour, Simpson told Northam of the Gene Haas Center’s program and introduced him to students, including one from the Eastern European country Belarus, being trained at the facility. Northam and Hutchinson watched and spoke with students while they worked.
Pittsylvania County Economic Development Director Matt Rowe called the visit from the two governors “an important symbol” for the region that will hopefully represent a future partnership between Virginia and Arkansas.
“It shows this region’s investments are being noticed outside of Virginia,” Rowe said in an interview during the tour.
The visit also illustrates that Northam and Hutchinson understand the importance of workforce investment, Rowe added. It has governors on opposite sides of the political spectrum with a common goal of improving their people, he said.
“It’s an honor anytime another state’s top elected official recognizes the achievements of our state, particularly this region — Danville and Pittsylvania County,” said Danville Economic Development Director Telly Tucker.
The investment, skill sets, and programs offered — as well as the recognition illustrated by Tuesday’s visit — create a competitive advantage in the region, Tucker said.
The training pipeline includes collaboration among the center, DCC, GW and the Pittsylvania Career and Technical Center in Chatham to enable high school students in Danville and Pittsylvania County — through dual enrollment — complete a year of precision machining training before graduating.
That enables them to complete a two-year training program after just one year at DCC after high school.
Those seeking advanced training can earn a post-degree certificate/associate of applied science from the Gene Haas Center.
According to November 2017 figures from Danville Regional Foundation President and CEO Karl Stauber, 127 area students graduated from the precision machining technical program from 2015 through 2017. Fifteen of those were employed in Danville or Pittsylvania County, and 61 were employed within a 70-mile radius of Danville. Their starting salary was around $20 an hour.
Also, the training pipeline has resulted in at least three companies announcing their location into the region.
Kyocera SGS announced its expansion into the Dan River Region with facilities to be built close to the Gene Haas Center. The company has received pledges of $550,000 worth of incentives from multiple state funds.
Overfinch officials have pointed to the skilled workforce training as a reason for coming to the area. The company has received pledges of $400,000 worth of incentives from multiple state funds.
The two industries have promised 75 new jobs with an average annual salary of $55,000 per year when up and running. The total net investment in the region as a result of these announcements would be $18.1 million.
In September, Unison Ltd., a global tube bending machine specialist from the United Kingdom, announced the opening of its first North American manufacturing facility in the area and will invest $5.2 million and create 35 jobs in the first three years. These jobs will pay more than $50,000 a year. The company has received pledges of $240,000 worth of incentives from multiple state funds.
The skill sets and technology offered at the Gene Haas Center has helped secure an upcoming economic development announcement in Pittsylvania County, Rowe said, though he would not say when the announcement would take place.