College and manufacturer join forces |

College and manufacturer join forces

by Steve Yingling
Special to The R-C

Through efforts to resolve a long-puzzling manufacturing need, Western Nevada College is helping a Northern Nevada manufacturer transform lives.

An ongoing collaboration between the college and area manufacturers such as American AVK in Minden is redirecting workers back to school part time to give companies what they want and, in the process, provide employees with preferred skills and more important positions in their operations.

The collaborative is a sounding board of leaders from manufacturing companies in Carson City, Douglas and Lyon counties. They have defined a curriculum and certification program that will help employees enhance their skills for personal success, and provide manufacturers with more dedicated, confident and resourceful employees.

“As a group of manufacturers, we found the key to work with the college in developing workers,” said Al Jurkonis, president of AVK, a 180,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and one of the U.S.’s leading manufacturers of gate valves, fire hydrants, and accessories for water, wastewater, fire protection and irrigation industries.

Through the collaborative, manufacturers have defined to colleges such as Western Nevada specifically what students need to know and which skills they need to develop to make larger contributions to their companies.

“The collaborative has given manufacturing employers the opportunity to utilize Western Nevada College as the resource for equipping their key employees with the skills and tools for success,” said David Steiger, WNC’s director of economic development.

By zeroing in on qualified employees, manufacturing companies will spend less time and money in training employees for key positions.

So far, AVK employees Perry Turpin, Jill Shaffer-Rice and Jason McKinney have completed the five required college courses to earn a coveted manufacturing certificate. Ten other employees are in various stages of the program.

Once entry-level workers, Turpin is now a fire hydrant supervisor, McKinney has been given more responsibility as a quality supervisor, and Shaffer-Rice has been promoted from customer service to a planning and purchasing position.

“They did it and they were successful in doing it, and that leads to more confidence, a bigger desire to move forward,” Jurkonis said. “We know it’s difficult but, on the other hand, we know nothing good comes from no real effort.”

Shaffer-Rice credits the certification program with making it easier for her to handle the hectic pace of her position.

“I have had much more peace and patience,” she said. “I guess it taught me that. I don’t know how it could, but it did. It completed me more.”

The outgoing Turpin said the program gave him confidence, which was projected to other people at AVK.

“Even the plant manager told me, ‘After you completed those courses, I saw a big advancement in the way you carry yourself, the way you handle yourself.’ It did help a lot. It gave me a lot of self-confidence,” Turpin said.

The trio has overcome anxiety over going back to school later in life, fear of certain subjects, plus disruption to their households.

“I know starting some of those classes, I was nervous the first couple of weeks. Starting the communication course I was shaking like a leaf,” said McKinney, who took a couple of classes out of high school, then went a decade before returning to higher education. “Toward the end, it was: ‘I can do any of these classes’.”

In return for their life-altering time commitment, they have exited the program with self-confidence and a higher position in their company.

“We are looking for people who are committed to learning,” Jurkonis said. “Once you start making that investment again in your life, it’s not easy for any of them. We know this benefits them beyond us. We know the more engaged they are, the better employees that are probably going to be in getting our work done. These things always fit into their everyday life.”

Shaffer-Rice delayed finishing to help take her granddaughter to San Francisco for cancer treatment. Turpin worked a heavy class load around his daily work schedule and his obligations as a single parent. McKinney’s children were 3 and 4 years old when he started the program and remembers needing his parents to care for them at night so he could go to school.

Adults returning to school at WNC can find courses their companies have outlined for them: mathematics, business communications, human relations for employment, blueprint reading and English composition.

“To me, that’s part of it. Most of these folks have been out of school for quite a while and to go back again, I think it would be intimidating, particularly with a subject matter you weren’t even comfortable with back in the day,” Jurkonis said.

For Shaffer-Rice, her kryptonite has always been mathematics. The class touched on areas, such as trigonometry and geometry.

“I had never taken any of that stuff. It was yikes. I said when I first started (the class), ‘How am I going to do this?’” said Shaffer-Rice, noting that she was teary-eyed upon learning that she had passed the final exam. Through support and extra help from her college instructor after class and between classes, Shaffer-Rice was able to master the subject.

“That class, even though it was my toughest class, was the one that did the most for me personally. I’m really proud of myself, and I’m proud of all of us.”

Turpin, who last attended college in 1973-74 before dropping out to join the service, said he benefited the most from the communications course.

“Every week, we had to give a speech, and that really brought me up to speed in communicating with people on the shop floor,” he said. “The chain reaction in my life has been phenomenal. A lot of the men working on the shop floor, I tell them, ‘You need to take these classes. Not only does it help you as far as communication skills, it involves you in the community and people in your family get to see this and people who are friends of your family get to see that you are headed in the right direction.”

McKinney said the program made him a better communicator.

“I write a lot of reports and want to make sure what I want to say is coming out,” he said. “You read a lot of sales reports and you are like, ‘What are they talking about?’”

Through the courses, students can become certified by the manufacturers, which enables companies to place them in roles requiring more education and leadership. Specific skills that manufacturers are seeking are the ability to:

■ Read and understand work instructions.

■ Read and interpret shop drawings.

■ Understand and be able to perform calculations using fundamental machine shop mathematics.

■ Recognize problems and be able to identify and recommend possible solutions.

■ Understand themselves and others for effective personal, group and team workplace interactions.

■ Learn effective listening and feedback methods.

■ Have the confidence and ability to communicate orally and in writing in an understandable, concise, cohesive and appropriately assertive manner.

■ Recognize and appreciate the value and rewards of continuous learning as a tool to embrace rather than resist change.

Jurkonis has developed a culture at his company fostering and promoting education and worker enrichment and development. The company pays for employee tuition and books, and mentors if students struggle in a particular subject.

“What we tried to do with the mentoring program is keep people energized and going,” he said. “As a manufacturing group, we thought it was important that they show up for class because that is part of the whole deal. Showing up for work is so important today.”

Jurkonis said the next step in the certification program would be to expand it to an associate degree.

“We’d like to see this branch out into specialties, quality management, using measurement tools … what you are trying to do with what you actually do,” he said.