Manufacturing isn’t what it used to be. As local companies are adapting to new techniques of producing goods, the region is looking at how to attract more advanced manufacturing firms and provide a ready workforce.
Colonial Assembly & Design, founded locally in 1982 at 3361 Shannon Airport Circle in Spotsylvania County, was acquired by ZenTech of Baltimore in April 2015.
“It’s a beautiful business,” said ZenTech president Matt Turpin. He said among the reasons ZenTech acquired the business is the region’s “agile and experienced workforce. There were key people located here and we are very happy with the workforce to draw from... In fact, employees commute 45 minutes to an hour to work in Fredericksburg at Colonial. “
He said being near clients in Dahlgren is important, as well.
“We see the leading edge of manufacturing, it’s what we are developing here every day,” said Turpin.
John Vaughan, vice president of sales and marketing, said ZenTech is investing in technology and employees locally.
The company is investing particularly in automated equipment, which Vaughn said has to be replaced every three to five years to stay current with technology trends.
“In the old days there was less capital investment needed to get into advanced manufacturing,” he said. “Technology ages out and that gets expensive.”
With the new machinery at Colonial, staff are building circuit boards; medical devices, such as sleep apnea home monitors and dental imaging devices; high altitude devices for airplanes such as microwaves.
While machines to the actual building, employees like Bill Polk engineer, program computers quality check and work with clients.
Polk manages operations at Colonial and has been there for a decade. But he’s been in the business, previously working for IBM, for more than 40 years.
“People come to us with an idea of what they want to do and we facilitate it, engagement can start anywhere from design to manufacturing,” he said.
About 60 percent of Colonial’s work is in defense contracting.
“We are using rapid prototyping, 3D printing, engineering new technologies,” said Vaughn. “Not a lot of it is product-oriented. A lot of those jobs left for China but when people hear manufacturing they naively think that’s what it means. “
Curry Roberts, president of the Fredericksburg Regional Alliance which works as an economic development engine for the entire region, said advanced manufacturing is one of the four most desired clusters for the area because of the high level of education needed for these jobs and the high pay.
He said a recent project the region didn’t get was only because of traffic on Interstate 95. The potential employer was impressed with the available sites and workforce.
He said the sector is currently not a big slice of the economy here “but keeping a diverse economy by attracting those business here is certainly important.”
“It’s not re-shoring manufacturing jobs we lost,” he said. “It’s an entirely new industry. They’re not the factories of old. They are well paying, highly skilled work. It’s not sweaty, repetitive work anymore.”
He said localities should work on zoning areas appropriately for these employers and make sure zoning codes are up to date with the work being done.
He said the region is also working with Germanna Community College to make it keeps up a skilled workforce to attract employers.
Martha O’Keefe, dean of workforce and professional development, said the community college offers 16 apprenticeships in total, which are a gateway for locals who don’t want a four-year degree to get high-paying jobs.
Among the popular programs are industrial maintenance, HVAC and electrical work, said Ben Sherman, business and career coordinator at Germanna’s Daniel Technology Center.
And he said said the programs are increasing in popularity.
The community college is also introducing manufacturing technology certification and drone technology programs.
Jeanne Wesley, vice president for workforce and community relations at Germanna said to keep up with demand and serve the Eastern part of its footprint, Germanna is opening a center in Fredericksburg for trade and technical training.
She said they are vetting two site around Central Park now.
“Many of our certifications align with the needs of the region, we research needs with local businesses,” she said. “One of the things companies look for is a skilled workforce. We make sure people are skilled and trained, and that allows local businesses to expand with new lines and economic development department to recruit new businesses here.”
She said it works both ways, that employer support is important to apprenticeships and job shadowing for student who will ultimately work in those fields.
Like Colonial, she said businesses that do advanced manufacturing like aerospace and defense contractor Euro Composites in Culpeper, and design and manufacture firm Bingham & Taylor, also in Culpeper, are instrumental the program.