Local Firms Join Pilot Program

    LANSING — What was designed as a statewide job-training program has almost entirely turned into one being done for West Michigan tool and die companies.

    Early this year, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. formed a pilot program that included teaching new manufacturing methods to tool and die makers. To launch this elaborate initiative, the agency partnered with the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center (MMTC) in January.

    With help from the Coalition for the Advancement of Michigan Tooling Industries, the Center for Automotive Research, and The Right Place Inc., MMTC fashioned a training program to improve worker productivity and reduce operational costs.

    How to utilize technology, create a synchronous workflow, measure the true cost analysis, and what comprises lean manufacturing are some of the topics the program addresses.

    “This pilot program offers shops real opportunities to improve their internal operation, to quote larger orders, and gain new business through a new collaborative business model,” said Michael Coast, MMTC president, who invited 600 firms across the state to participate in the training.

    The pilot program hasn’t taken off statewide. It has, however, landed safely in West Michigan.

    MEDC Vice President of Business Development Jim Donaldson said his agency hoped that at least two dozen tool and die outfits across the state would hop abroad the program. As of a few weeks ago, though, only about 15 had done so and almost every company that did was from either Grand Rapids or Kalamazoo.

    “We were a little surprised that there wasn’t stronger interest in southeastern Michigan in the program. Most of the people are from the Grand Rapids area and some are from Kalamazoo, with only a handful from metro Detroit,” he said.

    “We’re not real sure as to the reasons why,” he said to the poor turnout from the Detroit region. “There had to be a match of just under $15,000. For small firms I know that is a little tough, but there also is a subsidized rate that these people are charging.”

    The MMTC has offered discounted rates for the training, while the MEDC has set aside up to $400,000 for the program to supplement the cost to firms. Exactly how much money the agency will invest in the program will depend on exactly how many firms participate in it.

    “This is fairly low-cost training,” said Donaldson. “But times are very tough. So it could be that between the amount of funding that was requested, as well as the time commitment, maybe this just wasn’t the right time for the offering.”

    Donaldson told the Business Journal that Grand Rapids Community College would be the primary training site for the program. When the pilot was announced last winter, the MEDC planned to have two regional learning centers sharing the training load. But with a lack of response to the program from firms in southeastern Michigan, GRCC has become the program’s leading institution and has worked closely with the MMTC and Right Place to do that.

    Donaldson also said that the start of the program was delayed by a month in order to enroll a few firms slightly outside of the targeted industry, such as machine-building and fixturing companies, to boost participation. Despite the disappointing enrollment, though, the program is moving forward.

    Training got started a few weeks ago and will likely run into November. Initially, the program was to have ended in September. Firms can still get involved by contacting The Right Place.

    The state’s tool and die industry employed more than 30,400 workers in nearly 1,100 firms in 2000. But between 1998 and 2000, Michigan lost 6.8 percent of its workers and 7.7 percent of its companies in the industry — an industry the MEDC has called threatened.

    “The tool-and-die industry has traditionally been Michigan’s bread and butter,” said Jeff Mason, MEDC senior vice president of public affairs. “We can’t let this industry flounder because we didn’t assist these businesses in adapting to the rapidly changing marketplace.”           

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