Gov. tours successful industry

Published 11:47 am Saturday, August 21, 2010

Staff Writer

As state employment officials announced that North Carolina’s unemployment rate had fallen below 10 percent for the first time in over a year, Gov. Beverly Perdue toured one of the few local industries that has added workers during the prolonged economic downturn.
The N.C. Employment Security Commission said statewide unemployment dropped to 9.8 percent in July, still above the national rate of 9.5 percent.
With that in mind, PAS USA’s success seems all the more remarkable, county officials pointed out.
On Friday morning, Perdue met with local-government officials and business leaders at the PAS plant in the former Lowe’s building, off Washington’s 15th Street.
Later, the touring party walked along the production line, shaking hands with workers, some of whom paused from printing labels and assembling parts for major-appliance control panels long enough to chat with the state’s chief executive.
In the past year, the German-owned PAS — once known as Prettyl — has added employees thanks to contracts with two suppliers, BSH and Whirlpool, related Rick Powers, human-resources manager.
The company has added jobs, climbing from 75 to 200 employees in approximately a year, said Tom Thompson, Beaufort County’s chief economic developer.
“We’re trying to do our best to sustain the economy because we benefit from doing that,” Powers told the Daily News in a recent interview.
PAS could expand further if it picks up another major project, and company officials suggested they might eventually need a larger building to house operations.
“Everybody tells me we are one of the few companies in the area hiring that fast,” PAS General Manager Frank Wendland told Perdue.
Underlying the company’s good news was the surrounding economic malaise, and a problem that got a substantial airing in a sit-down session involving Perdue, state Rep. Arthur Williams, D-Beaufort, Wendland and others.
The problem: a partly unskilled work force with a large percentage of members who are unprepared to take on high-tech, full-time jobs after high school.
Wendland and Powers also referred to worker-retention issues that cost PAS money in training and lost productivity.
PAS has a minimum employee requirement of a high-school diploma, and on-the-job training is offered to incoming workers, Wendland said.
“We have certain areas where we recognize that, without coming up with a customized-training program, we will not get the skills from the people that we needed,” he said. “Even the local temp agencies, they cannot provide the talent in the amount that we need in those areas.”
Perdue wondered aloud whether high-school graduates are coming to the plant with the math and reading skills set that PAS must have.
“That’s still a weakness,” she said.
“It is still a weakness,” Wendland agreed.
On occasion, the company has to show workers how to fill out production reports and accomplish others tasks, he said.
“You can train them, but it’s obvious that sometimes there’s more training needed than we expected,” Wendland added.
Of the candidates in the available worker pool, around 50 percent come to the workplace with poor life and work skills, according to Powers.
“That worries me,” said the governor.
Citing education statistics, Perdue said that, on average, about 30 percent of North Carolina’s high-school graduates don’t have the core skills they need.
“And we’re working on that,” she said.
Wendland indicated the company is partnering with Beaufort County Community College and other organizations to ensure workers are obtaining the intellectual tools necessary to handling a whirlwind education on the assembly line.
For her part, Perdue said she embraces the idea of life-skills training worked out on a local level in the schools.
“Thank you for letting us fix our own problems,” she told Wendland.
Other stops on Perdue’s itinerary included the Beaufort County Courthouse and Beaufort-Hyde Partnership for Children.
Perdue also stopped by the Daily News for an editorial-board interview.