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Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Bringing high-end training to the workplace

By MIKE COTE
June 23. 2018 6:11PM
Graduate Gustavo Tavarez talks about the Manufacturing Engineering Certificate Program at Hitchiner Manufacturing in Milford, a cooperative venture between Hitchiner and Keene State College. The program's first class graduated last week. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)



A Milford company that expects to add 85 jobs after it completes a $50 million expansion project is working hard to keep the workers it already has and help them expand their skill sets.

The seven people who graduated Saturday from the Manufacturing Engineering Certificate Program offered by Hitchiner Manufacturing Co. in partnership with Keene State College have more than 50 years of combined experience with the company.

Three years ago, most of them hadn't been in a classroom in at least a decade. Now they can compete with people who have four-year engineering degrees for higher-paying jobs at the company.

Hitchiner, a 72-year-old company that makes precision-casted metal components for automotive, aerospace and other industrial uses, established the program in 2015. Saturday's graduates were the first to complete the program, which the company hopes will both groom workers for more complex work and increase loyalty.

Retention has been an ongoing problem for the privately-held company, said Timothy Sullivan, vice president of corporate affairs and services. Hitchiner employs 700 locally and 1,800 worldwide.

"Our prior practice was to go find engineers fresh out of college that had come from maybe a ceramic engineer or a metallurgist or those sorts of things," Sullivan said during an informal gathering with the graduates Wednesday. "They would stay for two or three years, and then they would either go back home to their mom and dad or to their boyfriend or girlfriend or just didn't like the New Hampshire weather."

Hitchiner spent about nine months developing 13 courses with Keene State College. Because the certificate program operates through the college's continuing education division, the student workers can focus on the subjects that are most relevant to their jobs.

"We knew through our partnership with Keene State that they had the flexibility to create an engineering program for us," said Sullivan, 54, who has been with the company 24 years. "Versus if you go to a traditional accredited college for a four-year degree in engineering, well, you've got to take the social sciences, you've got take the phys ed courses. We don't care about all of that stuff. Our workforce is working 40, 50, 60 hours a week sometimes here. So let's cut out all the things that aren't relevant to Hitchiner."

Norm Fisk, who teaches competitive manufacturing management and product design as an adjunct instructor at Keene State, said he welcomed the opportunity to teach in a different environment.

"It's customized training, skill-based training and really dedicated and willing students. They want more rather than less," said Fisk, who is 72. "It's a totally different environment, which is rewarding at this stage in life."

About 25 workers took the first class. While some chose not to continue or have since left the company, other workers beyond the first seven graduates are continuing with the classes. The company supplies computers, books and classroom space in the converted farmhouse that serves as the corporate office building at the Milford campus.

Joe Peterson, an estimating engineer at Hitchiner, was referred to informally as the class president of the first graduates of the Manufacturing Engineering Certificate Program at the Milford company. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

Time out for class

Workers are allowed to participate even if the classes fall within their shifts, but they have to make up the time. The classes are offered twice a week in two-hour sessions.

"When I used to be in the foundry, I had a supervisor who used to step in and actually handle my job for the two hours that I was out of the foundry," said Joseph Peterson, 28, an estimating engineer who has been with the company seven years. "Without him, completing these courses wouldn't have been nearly as easy as it was."

Peterson's classmates took to calling him class president after he began assisting Fisk with the lessons.

"I knew a lot of the background material coming into the courses so I was actually able to get up in a lot of cases with Norm," Peterson said. "Between the two of us we were able to get more of an understanding across to everyone than if it was just Norm teaching the class."

That kind of help made the transition easier for people like warehouse worker Richard Moore, who hadn't been in a classroom since 1989. Moore and his fellow workers spent time studying algebra, trigonometry and SolidWorks (a computer-aided design and engineering computer program) and public speaking. Moore said the program helped him gain more confidence in his work.

"When my boss personally comes and asks me a question, I can think about it and give him the answer," said Moore, 49. "Before, I had to go to someone else to go to someone else to go to someone else. I can actually make an answer or judgment on my own now and feel comfortable."

Renee Daigneault, who joined the company 10 years ago, was promoted to quality engineer while she was enrolled in the program.

"There were definitely things that I knew, but there was definitely a lot that I did learn from the class that I wasn't aware of," said Daigneault, 29. "I never really worked with SolidWorks so that was really helpful since I have to deal with drawings."

Gustavo Tavarez Diaz has been with the company seven years. As an operator, he does finish work, making sure the manufactured part is ready to go out the door. Diaz said he learned a bit of everything in the classes - and overcame his fear of public speaking.

"Now I feel more comfortable because of the class. Math made me more comfortable too," said Diaz, 31.

Sullivan said company president and CEO John Morrison supported the program as soon as Sullivan pitched the concept. In addition to the certificate program, Hitchiner also offers a six-month engineering development program at its research and development facility, another way to develop in-house talent.

"Are we more likely than not to retain somebody that's been through the program and comes up through the professional ranks than someone who we hire off the street who might be from a different part of the country and has no connection to Hitchiner?" Sullivan said. "My conclusion is yes."

Contact Business Editor Mike Cote at 206-7724 or mcote@unionleader.com.


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