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Up From The Factory Floor

The Workplace


In 1987, Gwendolyn Vanover was headed for chronic unemployment. Recently widowed, with one son, the 36-year-old Detroit resident had last held a steady job a decade earlier. Then, she entered a training program run by Focus: HOPE, a Detroit-based civil-rights group. After nine months there, Vanover landed a machinist's job at Gentz Industries Inc. in Warren, Mich., that eventually paid $9.50 an hour. Now, she wants more. Vanover has enrolled in a six-year program that Focus: HOPE is starting for graduates of its Machinists Training Institute, one of the country's most successful such programs. If Vanover hangs in, she'll get the equivalent of a master's degree in engineering. "If I stayed at my old job," she says, "I would have just been a lathe operator."

The plan is the most ambitious in Focus: HOPE's 24-year history. When it opens in mid-October, the group's new Center for Advanced Technologies will combine college-level engineering courses with hands-on experience in a for-profit factory (table). The program offers inner-city residents a ticket to the middle class and could also help the U.S. compete in manufacturing. As its engineers bring years of practical experience to the factories where they're hired, "we will no longer need a debate among 13 white coats to operate a flexible manufacturing system efficiently," says William T. Cunningham, the Catholic priest who is Focus: HOPE's executive director. Gary L. Cowger, executive director for advanced manufacturing engineering at General Motors Corp., agrees: "They will provide a skill required for manufacturing in the 21st century."

What makes Focus: HOPE's grandiose scheme seem plausible is its track record with machinists. The road out of poverty for its students usually starts with remedial education. After seven weeks in a self-paced, computer-driven courc, they commonly gain two grade levels in math and one in reading.

This qualifies trainees for the Machinists Institute, where they take nearly 800 hours of instruction is such topics as applied math and blueprint reading. Some 600 hours more are devoted to setting up and running machine toops. To instill real word standards, training is done in the group's factory. Of the nearly 900 graduates so far -- two-thirds of them minority and about 10% female -- about 90% have been placed in jobs paying an average straring wage of $8.50 an hour, says Cunningham.

The Center for Advanced Technologies will try to apply these methods to higher education. Located in a former Ford Motor Co. engine plant, the center houses manufacturing equipment on the first floor. On the second, there's an electronic library where students will do self-paced, computer-directed study. They'll put in 60 hours a week' 48 in the factory and 12 on academics, which will include German and Japanese. The curriculum is being developed with engineering departments from schools such as the University of Michigan and Ohio's historically black Central State University. They'll ensure that a center certificate is the academic equivalent of a degree from their own schools.

SOLE SUPPLIER. One departure from traditional engineering education will be the amount of real-world practice. A student studying, say, the distorting effect of heat generated by a high-speed lathe on metal alloys will put theory to the test on the factory floor. And trainees won't turn on a machine unless the plant has an order or the part.

The center already is moving into high gear. The for-profit unit opened in January, 1991, and has several million dollars in contracts, including one to be the sole, just-in-time supplier to Detroit Diesel Corp. for 153 different pulleys used in diesel truck engines. "A pulley on an engine turning at 2,100 rpm ends up being a fairly technical piece of machinery," says Detroit Diesel President Ludvik F. Koci. "With the kind of flexible machining setup they have, [the contract] works very well."

Such contracts will pay students $7 an hour and up -- and heop cover the costs of the center. Those will be high, since Cunningham hopes to replace the machinery frequently with next-generation equipment. So far, he has paid for the center building, equipment, and classrooms with $35 million in grants from the Defense Dept., plus $7 million from other government bodies and private foundations. Eventually, the center wants to enroll 450 students and snare $60 million annually in for-profit contracts -- plus public grants. Still, says Cunningham, "I would expect no more than the subsidy given to a PhD, say $7,000 a year per person."

A common criticism of training programs is that they tend to enroll the best students who might find jobs anyway. This isn't always true with Focus: HOPE'S Machinists Institute. But the group wants only its best graduates to try its new program. For instance, a month before her language classes begin, Vanover already has bought German tapes, so she can read foreign technical literature. Like the center she plans to be ready for the 21st century.James B. Treece in Detroit

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