Tools for Tomorrow's Workforce

Tools for Tomorrow's Workforce

Through its 'Community Campus,' Climax Portable Machine Tools is teaching kids valuable life lessons -- and creating a pipeline for skilled workers.

Geoff Gilmore, president and CEO of Newberg, Ore.-based Climax Portable Machine Tools Inc., has heard the drumbeat echoing throughout the halls of high schools and at dinner tables across the country: "'Don't go into manufacturing.'"

"It's kind of a dirty, blue-collar environment, and all those jobs are going overseas anyway,'" Gilmore laments. "Go into software and computers and service work.'"

Overcoming manufacturing's image problem is a particularly urgent challenge for Climax. The manufacturer of portable lathes, boring machines, flange facers and other portable machine tools has been on a steady growth trajectory since its inception in 1966, highlighted by a 200% increase in sales over the last seven years.

But the company is facing the reality of an aging workforce of skilled machinists "getting closer and closer to retirement."

"Our education systems are not adequately preparing our young adults for work today," asserts Gilmore. "For example, in our business, we have a critical need for machinists. We have good-paying jobs with benefits that we can't fill because there simply is a lack of qualified workers."

That's why Climax created its Community Campus.

The Community Campus is an internship program for high school and college students in which scholastics, business and home life "are all intermingled together," Gilmore says. Through the program, students learn life skills such as creating a resume, managing their finances and purchasing a car.

Students can use their internship experience to work toward their diplomas or degrees or even toward first aid certification. A student at a local community college, for example, can receive public-speaking credit by organizing an all-employee meeting or other company event.

"So they would not only be orchestrating the meeting but then standing up and having a speaking role in front of 120 employees," Gilmore says.

Climax has engaged local educational institutions, government agencies and its suppliers and business partners to develop the program. Gilmore notes that Climax's credit union conducted a seminar for the interns on managing credit card debt, while the company's insurance broker put on a presentation about life insurance.

Geoff Gilmore: "We have good-paying jobs with benefits that we can't fill because there simply is a lack of qualified workers."
Gilmore says it's important that kids learn these real-life concepts before they enter the workforce "rather than waiting until they're five years from retirement to start thinking about this stuff." However, he points out that the interns still do work, in manufacturing, accounting, sales and other areas of the company.

"So they're still learning the traditional work skills as if they were a full-time employee," Gilmore says.

Three years into the program, several former interns have become full-time employees and are making contributions to the company's success. Gilmore beams that the Community Campus has been "a huge profit-maker for us -- in ways we had not anticipated."

He points to two precocious high school students who designed and helped build a prototype for an accessory to a machine tool. Gilmore expects the accessory to become part of Climax's product portfolio, potentially generating $50,000 in annual revenue.

"We pay the interns, but we certainly didn't pay them $50,000," Gilmore says. "So it was a profit-maker for the company, and you can imagine what these guys are going to put on their resumes." In some cases, Climax has profited from the "fresh perspective" that kids offer. Gilmore says he'll never forget when a marketing intern expressed concern that she couldn't find Climax on YouTube -- but she found the company's competitors.

"It never occurred to us to even think about being on YouTube," Gilmore says.

Gilmore considers the Community Campus a product of Climax's "innovation thinking" and "breakthrough culture" that the company leverages to devise solutions for its customers. He points to one situation in which a team of Climax engineers collaborated with a customer to develop a CNC portable machine tool that remotely removes and replaces damaged pipes in a nuclear reactor.

"Nobody said that the core capability of the company was to design a better internship program. That was an outcome from innovative thinking about the problem of a shortage of workers," Gilmore says. "And so our innovation continues to focus on problem areas and coming up with creative ways of solving those problems."

TAGS: Talent
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