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Free Training Molds Students for Composite Plastics Field

Times Staff Writer

About a month and a half ago, 18-year-old Alex Carrillo was a self-described “hoodlum,” a high school dropout who hung around with gang members. Now the National City youth says he has a better future to look forward to--a job that is practically guaranteed.

Carrillo is one of about a hundred “economically disadvantaged” San Diegans in a special training program in composite-plastics fabrication, a growing field with a severe shortage of entry-level labor.

“Before I heard about this, I wasn’t doing too good. I was like a hoodlum,” Carrillo said. “Now I have a good job to look forward to. Maybe I can go to another school after this and maybe, someday, I’ll own my own company.”

The government-funded training program in Chula Vista, called Comprehensive Training Systems, gives students free instruction on how to make parts out of composite materials such as graphite, Kevlar and fiberglass for the aerospace and marine industries. Composites, as their name implies, are a blend of plastics, metals and synthetic materials increasingly used as basic materials in aircraft components.

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Low-Income Guidelines

About 130 students graduate from the program each year and go on to jobs with starting wages ranging from $5.60 to $8.50 an hour. That is no small amount for people who, if single, earned no more than $2,885 in the 6 months before starting the program in order to meet low-income guidelines set by the federal government.

Because CTS’s $340,000 annual budget is supported by the Private Industry Council/Regional Employment and Training Consortium, which administers federal Department of Labor funds under the Job Training Partnership Act of 1983, CTS must train those who are economically disadvantaged or recently laid off.

Although the dropout rate has been low--less than 3% during the 2 1/2 years CTS has been in operation--some trainees quit because they cannot afford to spend the 8 to 9 weeks it takes to learn plastics-fabrication skills without income, according to CTS executive director Linda Blair-Forth.

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“They don’t get any money. They’re here because they want to be here. They’re motivated by employment,” said Blair-Forth, who started the CTS program in May, 1986.

Carrillo, who turns 19 on March 28, wants to work for Chula Vista-based aerospace manufacturer Rohr Industries when he graduates from CTS. An increase in commercial aircraft orders in recent months has caused business to boom at Rohr, a specialist in making jet engine nacelles, or pods, and other engine components.

‘Best Thing I Could Do,’

“I used to hang around with a lot of gang members, and I got into some fights,” Carrillo said, sanding a piece of a satellite dish. “What changed me a lot, too, was my father passed away, and I had to help my Mom out. This is the best thing I could do.”

Blair-Forth says the shortage of workers who are experienced in composite plastics is aggravated by the fact that composite plastics is a relatively new field and few people are aware of it.

“When I put the program together, the (composite plastics) companies were actually, literally taking employees” by “poaching” them from other companies, she said. “There was a tremendous shortage and this is an up-and-coming profession.”

A spokesman for General Dynamics, who said the company looks at CTS as its primary resource pool for all its plastics fabricators, agreed.

“Right now, there’s a high level of competition within the industry for these types of people. . . . Here in the San Diego market, we have a number of competitors that look to hire these skills. San Diego is also known for its fiberglass boat-producing business, and they’re also large consumers of people skilled in plastic fabrication,” said Jerry Williams, manager of employment for the company’s Convair Division.

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General Dynamics’ Convair Division uses composites to make its two most important product lines: the Tomahawk cruise missile for the Navy and the fuselage of the MD-11, a commercial, wide-bodied plane designed by McDonnell Douglas.

Williams said it is projected that another 60 plastic fabricators will be hired in 6 to 12 months. “Chances of filling (those jobs) are very good with CTS. Without CTS . . . we’d have to hire semi-skilled people with very little composite experience if any, and we’d have to train them here at our expense.”

CTS’s curriculum is constantly updated with the help of an advisory board made up of representatives from companies such as General Dynamics and McDonnell Douglas, the top two defense contractors in the country. Representatives from Cape Composites, Composite Optics, Composite Tooling Specialties, Corsair Marine, Knight & Carver, Performance Plastics, Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical, United Technologies and Vantage Associates--all companies with San Diego operations--also sit on CTS’s Industrial Advisory Board.

Tours of Operations

Many of these companies give trainees tours of their operations, donate excess material for them to work with and teach them how to interview for positions as plastics fabricators. Those companies have also recruited CTS graduates.

Blair-Forth said the placement rate of program graduates is nearly 100%. Cade Composites, a subsidiary of Milwaukee-based Cade Industries, which had sales of $2 million in 1988, has hired 18 CTS graduates over the last 18 months. Cade uses fiber-reinforced composites to make aerospace products such as generator housings for planes, floor panels for helicopters and parts that are used to build missiles.

“They come out of the school and they have a basic training in the composite business. . . . It saves us time, instead of taking someone off the street and training them,” said Glen Lawford, manufacturing supervisor for Cade Composites.

Mike Smith, lamination department supervisor at Corsair Marine, also emphasized an increased use of composites in his industry. “The possibilities are expanding daily, as far as uses, different strengths and new techniques. People are constantly coming up with a newer or better way of doing it,” said Smith, whose department helps produce 27-foot, fiberglass sailboats.

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“It’s definitely the way of the future . . . the market’s there, and, speaking for Corsair Marine, a good-quality individual is something that doesn’t come through the door everyday.” Corsair, which is located in Chula Vista, has hired about 10 CTS graduates since the program started.

Simulated Environment

CTS, which simulates a work environment complete with time clocks and a foreman, does not consider itself a school. “You can be terminated for poor attendance or poor behavior,” said Blair-Forth. Besides learning basic techniques in making the parts, trainees improve their math skills and are taught how to read blueprints.

A spokesman for McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach said the company had hired 40 to 50 CTS graduates since the job-training program started. “From a skill orientation level, they seem to be doing a good job. . . . The people we’ve hired seem to know their skills and seem to be very well motivated,” spokesman David Eastman said.

Berhane Mengistu, 46, of East San Diego said he applied to CTS because he is good with his hands. Cecil Griffin, 33, of San Diego applied because “composite plastics is a new industry, like computers in the ‘70s. It’s a ground-floor opportunity into a field that’s totally open.”

Santee resident Tran Hong Yen, 27, said she doesn’t have enough money to go to college. “This is free and (I’m) learning something new,” she said.


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