Step Up for Women prepares RCBI females for manufacturing careers


Robert C. Byrd Institute

Machinist instructor Rick Smoot, right, demonstrates the proper use of a digital readout screen on the Clausing engine lathe for students in the Step Up for Women Pre-Apprenticeship Program at RCBI.

In a program which is one of the first of its kind in the United States, 10 women from all over the Tri-State are training for careers in the manufacturing industry, a field in which jobs are typically held by men.

The Step Up for Women advanced manufacturing pre-apprenticeship program at the Robert C. Byrd Institute in Huntington is a 10-week, free of charge course funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, developed to prepare women for careers in manufacturing and give them the skills they need to succeed in the workforce.

Mike Friel, Public Information Specialist at the RCBI, said the program began two years ago after an economic study from The Manufacturing Institute, a nationwide group for manufacturing, was released.

“They found that in the next decade, 2015 to 2025, there is expected to be 3.5 million job openings in manufacturing in the U.S.,” Friel said. “The scary thing is that the study found that it’s expected as many as 2 million of the 3.5 million job openings might go unfilled because of the skills gap in manufacturing, because we don’t have qualified people to fill those positions.”

Friel said it is important to recruit more women into the field of manufacturing, especially since females make up almost half of the U.S. workforce but only 29 percent of manufacturing jobs.

“So certainly if we have a lack of skilled workers, where do we turn? Well, we can turn and try to attract more women and get them interested in manufacturing and be very welcoming because sometimes in the past we sometimes haven’t been very welcoming to female workers,” Friel said. “Because we have a national grant from the U.S. Department of Labor for not only these pre-apprenticeships for women but to establish nationwide, we’re able to offer this program for free.”

Women participating in the program receive classroom and hands-on instruction time using manual and computer-controlled mills and equipment, as well as travel reimbursements and industrial work clothes and boots.

“We’re finding that after they get out of the program, they’re finding jobs, we’ve had very good placement rates, and we’ve received letters and emails from many new graduates talking about how it’s really turned out to be a life changing experience,” Friel said. “Sometimes it’s their first time working a job where it’s not minimum wage pay, we’ve heard things like, ‘this is the first time I’ve ever been able to buy a vehicle.’ One woman had purchased a house for the first time and said that she was excited because for the first time ever she would get to take her son on vacation. So those kind of things really make us feel good when we hear that from those graduates.”

Josh Jobst, machinist instructor at the RCBI, said while the program mainly gives women the skills they need to succeed as machinists or operators, it also prepares them for other production jobs, as well.

“We’re trying to get them in a production and manufacturing type environment,” Jobst said. “We’ve had students get hired on at an assembly line, so we’re not assembling things over here but it’s the same environment.”

Jobst said after training in the Step Up for Women program, graduates will have a world of job opportunities to explore.

“This is what we have to work with, and it’s really good because it takes a lot of math and there’s just all kinds of information to be learned in this field, so it applies to a lot not just machinery,” Jobst said. “If you can do this you can do a lot of stuff.”

Friel said not only does the program help women find gainful employment, but it helps fill a critical gap in manufacturing in West Virginia.

“We just did a survey and found there were 1,000 manufacturing jobs open in the state right now,” Friel said. “We’re doing our best to try to help fill those.”

The Step Up for Women program was expanded to the RCBI’s Bridgeport location in 2017 after receiving very high success rates.

“We thought there was true room for expansion in that area because we were aware of manufacturers in need of additional skilled workers,” Friel said. “We expanded the pre-apprenticeship program for women to our Bridgeport location and it has done very well up there.”

According to Friel, the Step Up for Women program is one component in a larger effort by the RCBI to cultivate more skilled manufacturing workers across the U.S.

“The Advanced Manufacturing Apprenticeship Partnership here at RCBI is a nationwide program based here in West Virginia,” Friel said. “We have three locations, and we’re trying to help produce more skilled manufacturing workers by helping establish apprenticeships all over the U.S.”

Friel said the program is active in 15 states and is hopeful in expanding even further.

“We have people that train and do travel there and try to help these companies develop the skilled workers they need, and sometimes that’s just taking an existing worker and helping them develop a higher skill set,” Friel said. “What we do is we send someone from here into the manufacturing facility, be it in Washington state, and we train mentors in that facility to train the other employees.”

Friel said all instruction is offered on location or online and is built to fit each individual’s needs.

“We handle most of the paperwork and develop tracking systems so you can track how you’re doing,” Friel said.

According to Friel, the apprenticeship programs work to provide training and jobs to people who are underrepresented across the country.

“In addition to women, we thought, ‘who are other people who are underrepresented?’” Friel said. “Disadvantaged youth, we work with them to try to bring more disadvantaged youth into manufacturing, and also veterans and returning service personnel who are transitioning from the military setting back to civilian setting. Often these are people who have the discipline skill set that transitions well to manufacturing settings, so that’s part of the pre-apprenticeship program as well.”

Friel said a renewed emphasis has been placed on apprenticeships in the United States which inspired the RCBI to be part of the larger effort.

“The model has worked very well in places like Germany, and the apprenticeship model has really been effective at filling jobs in the manufacturing setting,” Friel said. “I think there is consensus around the country that we need to return to apprenticeships to develop skilled workers.”

Hanna Pennington can be contacted at [email protected].