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HEA Director Dr. Jason Harrison

The $9.5 million awarded to the Advanced Manufacturing Sector Partnership (AMSP) of Elkhart County during a June 28 gathering at Lippert Components Inc.’s (LCI) Plant 66 in Elkhart, Ind., will directly benefit the RV industry manufacturing community. The funding will support the development of the future workforce of Elkhart County with training in advanced manufacturing, industry-specific apprenticeship programs and minority workforce development.    

Four sources of funding comprise the $9.5 million grant, including $1.7 million from the Skill UP! Foundation for the acknowledgement of the state’s “innovation network” with support from the Department of Workforce Development (DWD). In addition, the Community Foundation of Elkhart County, with collaboration from local government ($100,000) and The United Way ($20,000), granted $4.3 million; the Department of Labor (DOL) Jobs for the Future (JFF) initiative allocated $3.2 million; and the National “Talent Hub” designated by the Lumina Foundation earmarked $275,000 for the program. 

The Horizon Education Alliance (HEA), an Elkhart County nonprofit organization focusing on community collaboration that leads to educational attainment and economic vitality, will be the primary conduit for the new funding.

One of the largest suppliers to the RV industry, LCI was the first to pilot one of the new training programs. The Industrial Manufacturing Technician (IMT) DOL apprenticeship program is underway at LCI’s plants 45 and 228 W with about 60 team members participating. The pilot has enabled the implementation of a bilingual version of the curriculum, the first of its kind in the U.S, according to Scott Mereness, president of LCI.

“We’re very excited to be a part of this effort, and we’re looking forward to the great benefits it will provide to the (Elkhart) community’s wellness and prosperity,” Mereness told RVBUSINESS.com. “Through education, empowerment, leadership and technical training, the grant funding will help move our industry into the next era.”

Cathy Clayton, executive director of Labor Institute for Training (LIFT), shared in the announcement of the DOL’s $3.2 million received for apprenticeships. She noted that the original training program, initiated at the Elkhart location of Austrian-based Benteler Automotive, has now expanded to the RV industry.

“We started our relationship with Benteler working with the industrial manufacturing technicians providing apprenticeship navigator services,” said Clayton. “That led to a Spanish translation of the certified production technician program. Our major goal is to increase access and diversity into registered apprenticeships.”

She said that the new program would someday be available throughout the nation, adding that the bilingual bridge program in Elkhart is important because 30% of the area workforce is Hispanic. 

LCI President Scott Merenes addresses media at Advanced Manufacturing Event

Mike Smith, director of technical training for LCI who spearheaded the initiative at the company, stated that the fast growing apprenticeship programs are now in place in two divisions and will be further enhanced by the new funding.

“Apprenticeships are a proven mode to develop someone in a skilled trade. Last year, we developed the LCI Technical Academy,” Smith noted. “We will be turning the key on this program with the grant funds behind it. This is going to be a game-changer for us in production. It will change the way our production moves forward.”

Smith explained that his firm is also starting another new initiative with an inclusion program for minority employees. “The goal is to start a LIFT program offered specifically for minorities — which is one-third of our workforce here at LCI. There is really untapped potential here,” he said. 

Mannie Cortez, a participant in the LCI Technical Academy and the firm’s new inclusion program, said he has been an Elkhart resident for 29 years and with the company for eight years but has never seen a training program such as this.    

“LCI wants to move us from the bottom to the top,” said Cortez. “No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, no matter what language you speak, they want everyone to be on the same page. My mother told me every single day, ‘you have dreams you have to fight for.’ And when I started my classes I said, ‘wow, this is another dream in my life starting when I am 51 years old.’”

Cortez added that the new program has helped him increase his skill levels and become more involved with the community. “I can help my neighbor, my brother and my sister. My journey started eight years ago and if I can get the chance, I would like to retire from Lippert. At 51 years old I am still in college,” he said.

Dakota Pawlici, Lumina Foundation strategy officer, praised the foresight of the HEA. He said that one out of every five jobs created after the recession went to individuals with a high school diploma or less.

“We can’t afford to leave these folks behind,” said Pawlici, “and Elkhart County is really leading the way. It is really hard to eat an elephant. Most (communities) start and then realize they can’t get down to the pre-K level or can’t work with older adults. That is what makes Elkhart County so unique.

“It is highly unusual for business leaders and higher education leaders to be in the same room asking, ‘what can we be doing together to make sure our work force is prepared?’ There is usually a lot of finger pointing. But in Elkhart County that doesn’t happen and a critical part of that is the role an intermediary and neutral partner like Horizon Educational Alliance plays,” he added.

LCI has been a key partner for the AMSP. Other industry partners include Benteler Automotive, GDC, Goshen Stamping, Hoosier Crane, Kem Krest, KIB Electronics, NIBCO, and Robert Weed Corp. Key education partners include Goshen College, Ivy Tech, and all K-12 school districts in Elkhart County. Additional partners include local chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, and workforce development agencies.