DALTON, GA. -- For a long time, Dalton hummed along without a pure technical school.
Dalton State College picked up some of the slack, offering both academic as well as some technical classes, but manufacturers mostly trained their own workers.
That was fine at a time when working for a carpetmaker simply meant performing manual labor.
Now, however, the increased sophistication in the region's manufacturing sector is creating a massive talent shortage, according to Vance Bell, CEO of Shaw Industries.
"We do struggle sometimes to find expertise to run our sophisticated manufacturing systems -- that is a challenge," Bell said. "Every manufacturer is saying, 'I need more technical training.'"
That could come as a surprise to some, because the Carpet Capital is home to tens of thousands of workers in the manufacturing sector, and is one of the most dense production hubs in the Southeast.
Carpet runs in residents' blood, with workers often following parents' footsteps into the flooring industry.
Yet until very recently, no single-purpose technical school existed here to train workers for flooring giants like Shaw Industries, Mohawk Industries and Beaulieu of America.
"That's why we had to start our own school," said Brian Cooksey, who heads up operations training for Shaw.
Shaw calls the program its technical achievement and reliability training program, or START.
AT A GLANCE
• 43 percent of Shaw's 1,600 maintenance workers are expected to retire in the next few years
• Considered "a dying art," trained maintenance workers have become increasingly difficult to replace
• Machines can't run without regular maintenance
• Shaw Industries -- trains about 40 new maintenance workers per year through its START program
• Georgia Northwestern -- trains about 60 students in electronic and mechanical maintenance at its Whitfield campus per year
• Dalton State -- Trains about 15 students in mechatronics each year
Source: Shaw Industries, Georgia Northwestern Technical College, Dalton State College
In 2011 the school taught courses to 1,290 of Shaw's maintenance workers, for a total of about 47,000 hours of training, Cooksey said.
The school's home is a quiet corner of Shaw's Plant 2, one of its oldest facilities. Workers over the years have hauled out most of the aged machines and replaced the cracking floor. Instead of whirring machinery, stacks of yarn sit silently in the man-made cavern, waiting for transport to another location.
However, an 18,000-square-foot section of the plant still buzzes with activity. The learning laboratory, built by trainees to simulate a real factory environment, serves as a hybrid classroom workshop.
Students take courses in electronics, mechanics, troubleshooting and programmable logic controls, all of which helps address a perplexing problem for manufacturers.
As the flooring giant brings back 2,000 workers from the thousands it let go during the recession, officials realized that as baby boomers retired there were few qualified workers to take their place.
In fact, up to 43 percent of their 1,600 mainatence employees are expected to retire over the next few years, according to Cooksey.
"We have a big concern about having a bench of talent ready to go," Cooksey said. "If you lose a big chunk of your force, no manufacturer could survive that."
Trainee Tracy Roberson helped put some of the machines together, learning a little bit about electric circuits to compliment his skills in fabrication and welding, he said.
"I was a mechanic for several years, but being an electrician is more mental," Roberson said. "For some people, it's kind of tough."
For those who don't wash out, learning both mechanical and electrical skills can make them valuable future employees, Cooksey said.
"If you've got someone like Tracy who's universal, that's what we're looking for," Cooksey said.
Other students like Ismael Ponce are using the program to get hands-on experience while pursuing a college degree.
Ponce is interning in Shaw's START program while enrolled at Dalton State.
"I like that I get to do hands-on projects," he said. "I just like fabricating stuff."
To keep the machines running, Shaw has created a full classroom and hands-on experience, complete with mock-ups of common instruments, wiring challenges and even supervised testing facilities.
On any given day, math and computer programming instructors teach alongside mechanics and electricians.
The goal is churn out well-rounded workers who understand both mechanical and electrical problems, including hydraulic and water pipe maintenance.
"We're literally teaching computer classes, electronics classes and math classes," Bell said.
Mechanical trials test the ability to use the right tool for the job, while electronic puzzles push students to reprogram the silicon guts of machines that produce the world's flooring supplies.
Students often find themselves trying to fix a tangle of hydraulic hoses by locating the fault placed there by an instructor like Joel Barnes.
"It's my job to make sure it doesn't work correctly," Barnes said as he tightened a clamp holding a spaghetti web of hoses together. "It'll take them about four hours to hook it up correctly after I'm done."
But it's not just about playing hide-and-seek with a broken nozzle.
"We try to create real-world situations and set it up in a safe way," said Barnes. "The machine that cuts the carpet runs off the same hydraulic system we have here."
On a different day, a student could find themselves learning a programming language that operates a touch screen device.
If workers can't make the trip, the wheeled test tables can be transported by truck across the Southeast to any plant in need of a technical refresher course.
But while Shaw's program has been a success, the company isn't looking to enter the technical training market full-time.
Cooksey hopes that Georgia Northwestern Technical College, which opened its Dalton-Whitfield campus in August 2011, will pick up some of his duties.
"We're working with Georgia Northwestern to develop machinist skills because it is sort of a dying art," he said. "We're in talks with them to identify existing machinists and send folks to our company so we have a steady flow coming in."
Shaw has the capacity to train 40 mechatronics workers per year through its program, which will rise to 100 now that Georgia Northwestern's Whitfield campus is up and running, according to Scott Spears, director of the school's industrial systems program.
"Basically we ask them on semester-by semester basis, what do you need, where are your guys weak, what brands of machinery are you guys using," Speers said of his interactions with flooring manufacturers. "The big thing they say is that they need a steady stream."
Dalton State's mechatronics program graduated about 15 students per year, but the program wasn't enough to meet local needs, said Charles Johnson, dean of the school of technology.
"I think that there's been this sort of panic mode in terms of how do we get these technical workers that we need," Johnson said. "But just because you graduate them doesn't mean they're going to stick around."
Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...