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SC manufacturers' training program has participants changing careers and lives

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Winnie Harley, a process technician at Volvo Cars, times the manufacturing process to look for improvements at the automaker's manufacturing plant near Ridgeville. Harley has held numerous jobs over the years but said she's found a home at Volvo. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

As a young girl, Winnie Harley used to help her father tinker with cars in his garage.

These days, thanks to a training program called ManuFirst SC, Harley helps build cars at Volvo's manufacturing campus near Ridgeville.

It might seem like a natural progression from backyard repair shop to factory floor, but the journey has been anything but a straight line for Harley.

"I was a licensed cosmetologist for 30 years," the Cane Bay resident said recently while inspecting S60 sedans at the Volvo plant off Interstate 26. "I ran my own cleaning business for a while and worked at an auto salvage yard. I've worked here and there. Most of the time I worked two jobs just to make ends meet."

It was Harley's son who persuaded her to take the 62-hour training program, tired of seeing his single-parent mom struggle to keep the bills paid.

"He wanted me to have one job and to be happy in one job," she said of her son, who died in July. "I know he would be proud of where I am now."

Harley is one of about 80 Volvo workers who've landed their jobs through the ManuFirst program — a crash course for people with  an aptitude for technical work but no practical manufacturing experience. Graduates of the course get a certificate that's equivalent to one year of manufacturing experience, the minimum that's needed for a job with Volvo.

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Automobile parts are manufactured inside the body shop at the Volvo Cars plant near Ridgeville. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

South Carolina's technical college system offers the course, with assistance from local schools, governments and the state Commerce Department. The program focuses on safety, how to use basic tools and equipment, quality and soft skills like showing up for work every day.

"It's not just about manufacturing," Kristen Lanier, workforce development manager for Berkeley County, said during a recent County Council meeting. "It also teaches communication, teamwork and conflict management."

Students must pass a drug test and commit to 100 percent attendance. The course doesn't guarantee a job, but many of the 1,000 or so Charleston-area residents who've taken the training over the past 2½ years have been able to find a job within the industry.

Originally a way to help Volvo beef up its workforce in Berkeley County, the often free or reduced-cost program is now accepted by more than 60 manufacturers statewide, including Sonoco Products, Bridgestone and Mercedes-Benz Vans.

"In the beginning it was targeted strictly to Volvo," said Barry Jurs, economic development director for Berkeley County. "But as we’ve gone through the years we’ve realized that’s not the only need we have."

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A Volvo Cars employee performs a quality check during the assembly process at the company's manufacturing plant near Ridgeville. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

A study by the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce shows more than 6,000 new advanced manufacturing jobs will be created regionwide by 2023 — a number that outpaces technical school graduates focusing on such careers by as many as 500 annually. The ManuFirst program is seen as one way to help fill that gap.

The South Carolina Economic Developers Association has put expansion of ManuFirst among its priorities for the coming year, with the group lobbying state legislators to find a consistent funding source for the program. 

Marc Gombeer, Volvo's plant manager, sees the program as "a pretty smart solution" to the problem of finding a trained workforce that's also local.

"There is a commitment by Volvo to hire locally," Gombeer said, adding that 90 percent of the plant's roughly 800 production workers come from South Carolina, three-fourths from the Charleston region. "If you have to import people to run your business, I doubt the sustainability of that."

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Marc Gombeer

Marc Gombeer. Provided

Gombeer's career has taken him around the world, from Belgium to Slovakia to China and, finally, to Berkeley County. In every place, he said, there's a tension between the skills businesses need and what schools teach. The ManuFirst program comes closest to bridging that gap.

"This helps us to have people who are better prepared for a real life job," he said.

For many of the program's graduates, it's literally changing their lives.

"We just had our first kid about a year ago," said Dallas Bolen, a member of Volvo's product launch team. Bolen joined Volvo after tending bar at a number of restaurants for 20 years.

"I finally met the girl of my dreams in my mid-30s," Bolen said. "We got married and we wanted to have a child or two, but I didn't think bartending was the way I wanted to raise a family."

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Dallas Bolen joined Volvo Cars after a 20-year bartending career. A member of the automaker's product launch team, Bolen said the job allowed him and his wife to start a family. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Bolen said the pay at Volvo is good, the benefits are great and he now has plenty of time off, a rare commodity in the hospitality industry.

"To be able to spend some time with my family and still be financially comfortable is a nice perk," he said.

Jerry Kirkland had been laid off from his security job when his brother told him about ManuFirst classes being offered in Berkeley County.

"I wanted to find a job that was better than security," he said while taking a break on the S60 production line. "Usually, to get something like this you have to take special classes in college or have part-time jobs where you can build up a year or so of training. Because of that program, I got my foot in the door a lot quicker."

Kirkland likes the pay and the hours, but the biggest difference from the other jobs he's held is the teamwork he's experienced at Volvo.

"They look after you and if you hit a problem, they support you," he said of his coworkers. "There's a strong bond here."

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Jerry Kirkland works on the S60 sedan assembly line at the Volvo Cars manufacturing plant in Berkeley County. Kirkland enrolled in the ManuFirst SC training program after being laid off from a security job. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

That camaraderie helped Harley in the months after her son died.

"I can't tell you how much love and support this place showed," Harley said. "Without them, I would not have be able to come back to work and carry through each day.

"When you have the perfect job, you feel like you're at home. Here, I feel at home."

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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