Malik Williams always thought manufacturing meant working in a steel mill, a job that seemed gone for good from Baltimore.
But since mid-October, the 20-year-old White Marsh resident has made his way onto factory floors to watch workers blend olive oil, create plastic containers and make custom-designed display boxes. He's learned about quality control and safety, shadowed employees and talked with shift supervisors, plant managers and human resource executives. And best of all, he's discovered, they're hiring.
"This is an opportunity I would never have," said Williams, whose only work experience has been at a supermarket, "especially to get into a booming industry, getting into something where I can build a career."
Williams is one of about two dozen participants in a six-week job training boot camp run by the nonprofit Maryland Manufacturing Extension Partnership. The program offers them an inside look at the region's manufacturing landscape while teaching key jobs skills. And for those who prove themselves by course's end, a limited number of jobs will be waiting.
It's a new approach to workforce development, pairing companies that need workers with potential employees who need jobs.
"What's innovative about this program is starting with the employer and what their needs are and backing out into the targeted training, so people are prepared for the jobs that are open," said Elisabeth Sachs, program director for EARN Maryland at the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.
The boot camp is being funded by EARN, or Employment Advancement Right Now, a state-funded workforce and economic development program that grew out of state legislation passed in 2013 to address workforce needs from the employers' perspective.
While manufacturing has been adding jobs overall in the United States, Maryland has lost 3,200 manufacturing jobs in the year ending in September.
"Even with that, many manufacturing employers have suggested they can't find qualified workers," said Anirban Basu, a Baltimore economist who runs the consulting firm Sage Policy Group. "The issue often is not about the absence of sophisticated skills. Complaints are often about … showing up to work and showing up to work on time. These basic aspects of workforce behavior are too often lacking."
The manufacturing boot camp seeks to address that shortfall. Candidates must commit to six weeks, all unpaid, of classroom training, plant tours and job shadowing designed to offer a baseline set of manufacturing, job and life skills.
Going into the program, they know some will be weeded out — if they fail to show up without calling, for instance — and that they will compete for a limited number of jobs. Only 14 of the 24 candidates in the current boot camp were left after two weeks. They are competing for a dozen jobs, in the $10- to $14-an-hour range, that Pompeian Olive Oil, Green Bay Packaging and Berry Plastics, the participating companies, expect to offer.
"The employers are getting a chance to see them in a work environment, to see their work ethic and skills and character," said Mike Kelleher, the chief financial and operating officer of the manufacturing partnership. The candidates "know there's no guarantee. They're trying to win over the employers."
On a recent Friday, trainees followed operations manager Dave Pollock through Green Bay Packaging's cavernous Hunt Valley plant. Workers wearing safety glasses and earplugs manned huge machinery that transformed massive rolls of paper into corrugated board. They moved the board along to be cut, folded, glued, laminated and printed to create customized boxes used to ship or display items that include beer, spices, eggs and snacks. Other workers drove carts from one end of the plant to the other, delivering stacks of boards.
Trainees peered inside the humming machines, questioned Pollock about the operation and pulled out cellphones to document the scene.
Jason Hill, a 32-year-old father of two from Northwest Baltimore, said he is determined to make it through the boot camp and land a job.
"I'm not going to let anything hold me back," said Hill, a former assembler at Middle River Aircraft who was laid off a year ago. "I am looking for a career, not just a job. Even if I don't get a job, the skills we get you can take for a lifetime."
Back in Green Bay's lobby, Tyson Aschilman, the firm's vice president and general manager, told candidates that the company expects workers to "show up on time, work hard and make us better. Tell me what I can do to help you do your job better. When employees are … treated fairly, it makes a happy employee. Happy employees are more efficient."
The boot camp, he said, improves the odds of identifying and offering preliminary training to workers who will stay.
"Good people are hard to find," Aschilman said. "If you can make it through a six-week boot camp, this is the quality of people we need. We can't afford to hire a guy and train him for three months and have him not show up."
Berry, a maker of plastic packaging for household products, often has entry-level jobs available, said Lisa Davis, human resources manager. Jobs at the 400-worker facility in Baltimore, one of 70 of the company's North American plants, include people who inspect, pack and label plastic containers, along with machine operators, equipment programmers, technicians and maintenance workers.
"We have a workforce that is aging to some extent," she said. "There's an opportunity to grow new talent."
But that talent can be difficult to find, she said.
"The old industrial tech and vocational programs have fallen out of favor," Davis said. "We struggle a little with a perception problem, not being on the radar for students and parents," even though the industry can offer high-tech and well-paying jobs.
Pompeian, the maker of olive oils, blended oils and cooking wines on Pulaski Highway, has found itself more and more in need of workers with technical skills and abilities, said Renee Jaqueth, human resources manager. She said the company needs workers to operate and troubleshoot equipment at the 75-worker plant where imported olive oils and cooking wines are blended and bottled.
"The majority of our lines will have more computer-based equipment, and the needs for workforce and skill levels are only increasing," Jaqueth said. "It's been difficult to find people who've had that experience."
The company hopes to hire two operators and a forklift operator from the boot camp, which will send workers to shadow plant workers over the course of the camp, she said.
"They'll start learning about different product lines and different functions of operating the machines, so we can judge their ability," Jaqueth said. "By working with them, we have a better understanding of their attendance, showing up on time … and then we can really focus in, when they're here, on the skills most important to us."
The manufacturing partnership, launched in July 2013 to expand Maryland manufacturing, talked to about 100 manufacturers about workforce needs before developing the camp, Kelleher said. The group works with manufacturers on issues such as facility layouts, exporting and product development, and has found that most grapple with shortages of qualified workers.
The organization, working with partners such as the Mayor's Office of Employment Development, Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland and the Baltimore-based Center for Urban Families, received a two-year, $455,000 state grant from EARN to run the boot camps and training for skilled workers. It is one of 28 grant recipients in fields from cybersecurity to transportation logistics that face labor shortages because of aging workforces, changing perceptions and new technology, Sachs said.
The partnership plans to run four additional boot camps and possibly three or four shorter ones, each in a different part of the state with other manufacturers. Pilot camps were held earlier this year in Frederick and Garrett counties.
"A lot of it is the skills gap that is present, combined with a [lack of] willingness and readiness to work in the manufacturing environment," Kelleher said. "Young people don't even consider manufacturing as an alternative. …They envision it as a dirty job or working in a steel mill or a hot, dirty, loud environment, and many of the manufacturers today are not like that at all."
Williams, the candidate from White Marsh, said he was surprised to learn that food processing is manufacturing. He's now hoping to drive a forklift in a warehouse, and is devoting time to studying course materials, taking lots of classroom notes and asking plenty of questions in hopes of getting hired.
That's the goal, Kelleher said.
"We're hoping those people that get through to graduation will become good workers that last a long time," he said.