When I started as a Business Development Manager for DARS in 2015 covering Southwest Virginia from Wytheville to Bristol, I set a goal of visiting every manufacturing facility in the region (of which there are at least 100!).
At the time, Gov. McAuliffe had issued Executive Order 46, supporting Virginians with disabilities “to find career pathways through education and training that lead to full-time, competitively waged jobs.” I was determined to discover the wealth of manufacturing job opportunities in the region while educating these companies about hiring individuals with disabilities.
Meanwhile, the Southwest Virginia Alliance for Manufacturing expanded, collaborating with our business services team, which is comprised of workforce and economic development professionals, chambers of commerce, state college systems and businesses. We share the common goal of supporting our local businesses in finding qualified job candidates to meet their hiring needs through recruiting, education and training.
I invited members of the Business Services team to join me on these tours. The first tour was at GE Aviation in nearby West Jefferson, N.C., which had just announced the addition of 105 new manufacturing jobs.
Universal Fibers was the second and largest tour, with 40 people in tow. This high-tech manufacturer wowed us with its unique color-dyeing process that spins fibers into exclusive products such as carpets for classic Corvettes and Disney cruise ships, the PINK apparel line of Victoria Secret, and dental floss for Johnson & Johnson.
The host of another tour, Tempur-Pedic, produces its signature mattresses and pillows in Duffield. During this visit, we got a glimpse of this massive production of specialty foam – originally designed by NASA to cushion aircraft seats – that measured hundreds of yards long. The pillows are shaped in a machine resembling a huge sandwich press and then cut with 6-foot blades.
Touring Gatorade’s bottling and distribution facility in Wytheville was another visual feast. The production process resembled a rainbow of liquid spinning like tornadoes through clear tubes lining the walls. The bottles are made by another manufacturer – Amcor – adjacent to Gatorade and shuttled to the plant for filling.
How have these tours paid off for our job candidates? Universal Fibers has hired four people, including one client who attended DARS’ Career Pathways for Individuals with Disabilities manufacturing academy. Somic America has also hired two job candidates.
In the long-term, these tours laid the groundwork for increasing awareness of DARS’ Business Services, CPID’s manufacturing academies and the manufacturing training program at DARS’ Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center in Fishersville – all important resources for a pipeline of talent.
Peggy Hurley has started a new job at the Virginia Employment Commission, but will continue to work with DARS on business services efforts in the Southwest region.