City program wants to prepare high schoolers for today's manufacturing jobs

After decades of manufacturing decline in Baltimore, city officials say they believe industry is poised to bounce back — and they want to promote a new education track in city schools to train students for the field.

The Computer Numerical Control Manufacturing program, being offered this year at Carver Vocational-Technical High School, will train high school students for hard-to-fill skilled machinist jobs.

Despite years of job losses, more than 12,000 people worked at more than 440 manufacturing companies last year in Baltimore. The city has food manufacturers, printers and makers of fabricated metal products, furniture, chemicals and plastics.

"We're hoping to do even more," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said. "Baltimore has a history that is rooted in the port and manufacturing. For decades, that was the way families moved out of poverty and into the middle class. Manufacturing moved overseas in search of cheaper labor. The affordability of overseas manufacturing is beginning to change and jobs are coming back. We want to make sure Baltimore is ready for those jobs."

Jobs in manufacturing aren't what they once were, said Mark Rice, president of Maritime Applied Physics Corp., based in the Fairfield area of the city. Machinists, who make metal parts, used to operate machines manually, he said.

"Now we design everything with computer-aided design," Rice said. "The [computer-aided design] file goes from a designer to the shop floor into a CNC [computer numerical control] machine. A machinist has to be more of a computer programmer than a traditional metal cutter.

"Today's manufacturing facilities are highly automated and filled with skilled people."

His company and others are struggling to find enough CNC machinists and aluminum welders capable of using robotics, especially younger workers, because of a lack of training programs.

Other than a similar program in Carroll County, Rice said he was unaware of other training for high school students in Maryland.

The new Carver track, which enrolled 19 10th-graders this year, allows students to learn the trade as they pursue the regular high school curriculum. They will have a chance to work as summer interns at Baltimore manufacturers and an opportunity to be hired once they graduate and have earned four trade certifications.

Eventually, the Carver program could enroll about 75 students, with full classes in 10th, 11th and 12th grades, in hopes of churning out a steady supply of potential workers, Rice said.

"Once they learn these basic skills, it puts them in a position where they can go to almost any manufacturer," in areas as diverse as food processing, aerospace, pharmaceuticals and biotech, said Brian Sweeney, executive director of the Maryland Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a nonprofit manufacturing consultant. "These jobs are popping up all over the state."

The jobs can start at $15 an hour for skilled workers with a high school diploma and offer career advancement. The jobs are not only higher-paying than many jobs for those with only a high school education, "if you come in as an entry-level machinist, you can become a higher-level machinist," Sweeney said. "You can have a middle-class living wage with benefits."

Besides Maritime Applied Physics, companies such as Chesapeake Machine, Maryland Theroform, Ellicott Dredges and North American Millwright helped to craft the manufacturing curriculum and could become employers for graduates.

The hope is that Carver's program will "create the interest and excitement to enter into these trades," Sweeney said.

Baltimore Development Corp. President William H. Cole IV said the new school track is designed to respond "directly for a new generation of advanced manufacturing technicians."

"Our biggest threat to this industry is not having enough skilled labor," Cole said. "It is such a technological, computer-driven industry now. We have to have these types of students. These are high-tech and high-salary jobs."

Cole said in addition to trying to attract new manufacturing businesses to Baltimore, the BDC also is focused on developing existing firms. He said Saval Foods and Pompeian Olive Oil are two examples of businesses showing growth.

Cole's agency is hosting a Manufacturing Forum Tuesday at the Baltimore Hilton in hopes of connecting manufacturing firms with the financial industry to help them grow.

"These jobs are critically important to Baltimore," Cole said.

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