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Job Training Takes a Specialized Turn
By William Wilcoxen, Minnesota Public Radio
May 9, 2001

The assembly line brought a dramatic change to 20th-century manufacturing by allowing products to be mass produced. At the start of a new century, technology is again changing manufacturing by allowing more products to be custom-made. In an age of computers and robots, even the job skills needed to work in manufacturing are becoming more specialized.

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, Lynette Dotterwich worked for a successful St. Paul business that silk-screened images onto T-shirts. But that business owner eventually did so well, he left Dotterwich behind.

"I worked for him for two years, then he moved to Burnsville or something, but it was too far for me. So then I had to find something different," Dotterwich says.

After the birth of her youngest child, Dotterwich enrolled in the Minnesota Family Investment Program. That welfare plan then connected her with the St. Paul Port Authority and its Skills First job-training program, which gave her the training she needed for her current job with a company that labels and decorates bottles. While training her in use of the labeling machinery, the program also allowed her to develop new people skills that helped her interact with others.

"It helped me as far as how to associate with the people I work with now and be more open with them; don't be this shy person. If you have questions, ask. I found that out real quick," says Dotterwich.

Dotterwich says labeling bottles proved to be much more intricate than her T-shirt job. But with a year's experience at C-Pak Bottle Decorating, she now manages the labeling area and can provide a crash course in the manufacturing process.

Port Authority President Ken Johnson says customized job-training programs, like the one that brought Lynette Dotterwich to C-Pak, begin with a company analyzing what skills it requires in an employee. The port then works with its partner organizations to develop a training curriculum that will produce those skills and then to recruit potential employees.

A network of neighborhood social-service groups help the port find prospective workers who are often immigrants; sometimes people looking to transition out of welfare, and occasionally are working people looking for better-paying jobs. Johnson says available labor is one of the city's selling points to businesses.

"We're one of the few places that have people who are looking for work. The shortage of workers is today's economic development issue and in St. Paul we are blessed with individuals who are looking for work. So from an employers point of view, St. Paul is a very attractive place to be," according to Johnson.

Johnson says unlike the factory jobs of yesteryear, modern manufacturing work is generally clean and safe, with wages in the $15-an-hour range.

The president of C-Pak, Jim Stinchfield, says his company now has 25 employees, which is 40 percent more than a year ago. The training program, he says, is tailored to develop the employees he needs but can also be customized to fit the trainee.

"One of the things that we're looking at is developing a training manual that would be digitized and computer based, and then be able to say, 'OK, we've got a new Somali worker. Let's change this computer program to Somalia's language.' We'll change it the next week possibly to Ukranian or Spanish."

Stinchfield says the job training is ongoing. He says classes at the plant will help workers develop their English and computer skills. He hopes that as the company grows the training will help some of the workers gain promotions into senior positions.