There are signs that after years of decline, manufacturing is making a comeback in the United States. One global company based in the Upper Valley has been adding so many workers so fast that it’s had to create its own on-site academy.
Hypertherm, in Hanover, makes high-tech machines that use laser and water to cut metal. On a summer day perfect for swimming, in a factory built just for training, about a half dozen young men are hard at work, gathered around a drill press.
At first they’re operating it manually, to understand what a computer will eventually be telling the drill press to do, when they learn how to program the computer.
Twenty one-year-old Cody Smith, from Enfield, New Hampshire, takes a break with a few buddies outdoors between classes.
“I was looking for a career path and a way to further my education, trying to see what I wanted to do with my life and it seemed like a good opportunity,” Smith says.
His friend Cody Thornton, an 18-year-old from Lebanon, agrees. What’s not to like about getting paid $11 an hour to get trained for a manufacturing job you could have for a lifetime? Even if that means hitting the books and toiling on a factory floor all summer long?
“So they are taking a chance on us, but they figure it will work out for them in the long run, hiring people so they can shape us and form them into what Hypertherm wants,” Thornton says.
Matt Burge leads what the company calls the “Cutting Institute.” Hypertherm invested over $2 million in training machines and instructors during a growth spurt in 2006. That’s when Burge says the company needed to hire 60 new machine operators a year for three years. But local vocational programs couldn’t afford expensive up-to-date equipment, and were also losing students, perhaps because they didn’t see a future in manufacturing.
“The enrollments went down and labs closed, so Hypertherm was faced with a dilemma: how to find people?” he recalls.
People, he says, who can do math. Burge says an aptitude test for the institute’s applicants measures competency in basic algebra.
“And what I would consider to be fifth grade math. It’s the equivalent of adding and subtracting change from a cash register,” Burge says.
He says about half the applicants cannot even do that simple arithmetic. But Hypertherm takes the other half and fills in knowledge gaps during the summer for nine months. There are courses in math and in teamwork. Hypertherm wants its trainees to join the company, but will educate employees for other manufacturers, because there’s plenty of work to go around in this part of the country.
“There is a valuable career to be had with great earning potential, great personal satisfaction in terms of things to be learn,” Burge says. “And I can speak quite specifically for Hypertherm, there are opportunities to advance and advance and advance for many years in the career path that’s quite vibrant.”
Hypertherm employs over a thousand people, and is owned by its workers. It’s never had a layoff in 40 years. Some of the students at the Institute are adults trying to re-boot their careers. All participants earn 27 college credits from Hypertherm’s school, which partners with River Valley Community College and other training organizations to ramp up the region’s manufacturing workforce.