A1 A1
top story
High Country preparing for growth in manufacturing sector

HIGH COUNTRY — The manufacturing industry in the High Country is alive and well. Structall Building Systems is set to join other manufacturing companies in the region, such as Altec Industries and BRP, once it opens its Newland plant later this year. Structall will be looking to hire workers from the local community who can gain the required expertise by attending the Anspach Advanced Manufacturing School at Mayland Community College’s Yancey Campus.

Structall specializes in the manufacturing of building materials, specifically its flagship product, which are energy-efficient Snap-and-Lock insulation panels that are designed for increased efficiency in the building process. Based in Oldsmar, Fla., the executives at Structall are hoping that once the new plant in Newland opens, they will be able to hire qualified individuals who are looking for a long-term career with the company.

“The labor market in Florida is very, very unique. We’ve always had turnover issues, and I think it’s mainly because there is a lot of manufacturing competition around here in general,” Victoria Bowman, Structall’s Director for Strategy and Culture, said. “So as we began to research that labor force, that’s really why we chose (Newland), because of all the terrific feedback about that area in general and how great the people are. The most important abilities are reliability and accountability. The rest of it can be taught.”

Among the skillsets being sought by the company are those of machinists and carpenters. Structall has the capability to eventually expand its door production to the Newland facility, but it will first concentrate on performing specialty cuts at the new plant. Panels will be produced in Florida and shipped up to Newland where they will be hand cut to fit desired home kits.

As for machinists, Structall will be looking for well-rounded professionals who would be able to weld and maintain production equipment. Bowman says that these sorts of tradesmen will be critical as the facility gets up and running.

“We have a full-time maintenance staff on site. It’s just night and day, because (repairs) are not just something you can beat down for a day while waiting for someone to come in and make a repair. So I think there would be opportunity in also having someone who is a little multifaceted like a machinist or a professional tradesman. That would definitely be something that we will need,” Bowman said.

The company will first focus on getting its production functions operating before moving on to hiring sales and retail staff who will eventually be working in the facility’s showroom, where the company’s products will be on display.

Recent progress at the facility includes the removal of the old IRC logo, as well as a renovated entrance. Over the past months, the site’s project manager has been busy running the renovation of the facility after the building set empty and dilapidated for more than a decade.

According to Bowman, the facility is expected to be up and running around summer or fall later this year, with about 30 personnel expected to be hired for a variety of positions, including the ones previously mentioned, when the facility is fully functional. During this intermittent period, Bowman is hoping the company will be able to work with local educational institutions such as Mayland Community College to establish a pipeline to help train students and prepare them for careers in manufacturing.

“I would love to, especially since we’re not built yet, to go ahead a lay that talent pipeline ahead of time or at least have those relationships set up. It would be a great path to success once we’re ready to actually advertise and hire,” Bowman said.

One resource that has been critical for the area’s manufacturing base has been the Anspach Advanced Manufacturing School at Mayland’s Yancey Campus. Students who graduate through the college’s manufacturing program often land jobs at places such as Altec Industries, Bombardier Recreational Products (BRP), Sibelco, Baxter International, Buck Stove and GE Aviation, among other industries.

According to Applied Engineering Program Coordinator and Instructor Lyndell Duvall, the program is aimed at training industrial technicians who are well versed in most of the basic concepts involved in advanced manufacturing. Students progress through the course by designing products using 3D design software and rapid prototyping. Students then take their concepts and produce actual products, whether that be items that go into buses, planes, truck bodies or other machinery. Electronic Engineering Technology and Computer Engineering Technology programs are also available on the main campus.

Moreover, the manufacturing school is aided by its 3D printers, which allow students to rapidly produce their concepts. Mayland is among only four colleges in the state with the capability to 3D print in titanium. With those institutions being Western Carolina University, North Carolina State University and Duke University, Mayland is certainly in good company.

In addition to rapid prototyping and 3D printing, students also have the opportunity to work with CNC machinery, or machinery that uses pre-programmed software that dictates the movement of factory tools. Robotics and automated manufacturing is also part of the programing, allowing students to become familiar with some of the most advanced manufacturing techniques in the industry. To top it off, students who go through the program have several options available to them in order to enter the industry.

“One of our primary goals is to put people into jobs right away,” Duvall said. “We focus a lot on something that is kind of a buzzword in education and that is stackable credentials. Basically what that means is for a student who might be unemployed or looking to get into the workforce, a couple of years is a long time to be looking. So the idea is to bring them in and get them a credential like a certificate that they can use to build toward an associate degree, or later on a bachelor’s degree. What that allows them to do is begin working as an entry level person in a technical field and then work their way through, a lot of times being sponsored by the employer.”

The program allows for three different pathways that students can take to either get their feet wet in the industry or to dive right in. Students can complete the degree program, which takes about two years to graduate from if the student attends full-time. The diploma program takes a year, while the certification programs can take between one to two semesters to complete.

The college’s administration is also working on creating a Certified Production Technician course that will be 16 weeks long and guarantees students an interview with Pratt & Whitney, an aerospace company that is opening a manufacturing facility in Asheville.

“They will eventually create about 800 manufacturing and engineering jobs in Asheville, and they will be primarily hiring in manufacturing. They are looking for all of their students to be trained in engineering, production tech or something technical. They are looking for at least a certificate program at a minimum. It will open up a lot of opportunities for engineering students. Initially, the plan is to hire 150 in the next year or so. Those will be higher paying, high-end jobs and will be a great opportunity for people in this region,” Monica Carpenter, Associate Vice President of Economic & Workforce Development, said.

Mayland’s manufacturing program is geared toward a diverse population of potential students, including those who may be looking to switch professions, as well as high school students entering the workforce for the first time. College staff work closely with juniors and seniors at Mountain Heritage High School in Burnsville, as well as Mitchell High School. A dual enrollment program is also in the works for students at Avery High School, according to Avery County School’s Director of Career Technical and Education Ellis Ayers.

The dual enrollment program allows students to gain college credits when they take an upper level engineering course at the high school. These classes are taught by Matthew Michel and give students a foundational knowledge that can be transferred once students are ready to tackle the college’s more advanced coursework. Ayers hopes that the classes can begin matriculating by the fall semester.

“We’re very interested in setting up internships and tours to raise awareness and strengthen that partnership and get a pipeline set up for employers. We’re very interested in being a strong community partner,” Ayers said.

Once Strucall is ready to begin advertising its positions at its factory in Newland, the company will likely already have a vital community resource from which to draw talent.

Furthermore, as additional companies develop interests in the High Country’s manufacturing base, it will only further the area’s economic growth and provide solutions to some of the area’s ailments that are economic in nature.

“We’re going to keep on keeping on, and keep putting one foot in front of the other,” Bowman said. “Every milestone that we hit, it just gives us more and more momentum. So once we get this sewer (connection issue) worked out, I feel like that is going to be the catalyst for moving on with the rest of the project.”

For those interested in pursuing a career in manufacturing, Mayland Community College’s Yancey Campus can be contacted by calling (828) 682-7315. For those interested in carpentry, they can reach out to the Avery Learning Center by calling (828) 765-7351. Additionally, Mayland’s main campus can be reached by calling (828) 765-7351 or by clicking to mayland.edu.

COVID-19 vaccines available for ages 75 and older

NEWLAND — The Avery County Health Department is now providing vaccines to anyone 75 years of age or older at the Avery County Agricultural Extension Community Building at 661 Vale Road above Ingles in Newland.

The first round of doses began on Tuesday, Jan. 12, and will last until Friday, Jan. 15. The next available times will be from Wednesday to Friday, Jan. 20 to 22. Vaccine shots will be available during the hours of 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

The department is asking recipients to bring their insurance cards and to wear appropriate clothing, so the vaccine can be easily administered in the upper arm. Those who have a bleeding disorder or are on blood thinners need to contact their physician and receive written documentation to receive the vaccine. Questions about the vaccine can be addressed by calling (828) 733-8273. Masks are required.

According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Resources, approximately 234 individuals in Avery County have received the first dose of the vaccine, and three people have completed the vaccine series as of Jan. 12. The first people to receive the vaccine in the county were those in group 1A, which included health care workers as part of Appalachian Regional Healthcare System and the Avery County Health Department who have been on the frontlines of the pandemic.

The county’s efforts to begin vaccinating people 75 years of age and older comes after NCDHHS Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen announced on Dec. 31 that the state had changed its distribution plan to include those in the age group as part of phase 1B, whether or not they have a pre-existing condition.

To date, the ACHD has received 1,200 shipments of the Moderna vaccine, which was shown to be 94.1-percent effective in clinical trials, and continues to receive weekly shipments to cover the second dose of the vaccine. The second shot is applied 28 days after receiving the first one, and patients will be able to schedule a time to receive that second vaccination during their visit to the community building.

“People will come in and fill out their paperwork. When they’re done they will bring it to the nurse and then wait for 15 minutes. EMS will be here as well, and if anyone has an allergic reaction they will take care of them,” Deborah Gragg, ACHD nursing supervisor, said.

After those 75 years of age and older receive their vaccination, health care workers and frontline essential workers older than the age of 50 are listed as next in line to receive the vaccine, according to NCDHHS. Meanwhile, CVS Pharmacy and Walgreens have begun vaccinating residents and staff at assisted living facilities, with local facilities expected to begin receiving their vaccine doses this week.

Diane Creek, director of the Toe River Health District, said that the three health departments do not expect to experience any shortages of the vaccine as the rollout continues.

“So far we have not experienced any shortage of vaccine. We continue to get regular shipments of vaccine so we don’t think there is any reason to think anyone who wants a shot won’t be able to get one. We are getting the Moderna vaccine, which requires two shots, 28 days apart. Once we vaccinate the majority of group 1b1 (those who are 75 years old or older, regardless of health condition) then we will move on to group 1b2,” Creek said.

Plans for the county to go out into the community and hold vaccination clinics at places such as Riverside Elementary School, Banner Elk, Beech Mountain and other locations are in the works as the county waits to receive its two mobile crisis units. The county will likely begin this phase of the community rollout once it is time to vaccinate those who are 65 years old and younger. In the meantime, community paramedics will be going out to the homes of those who are 75 years of age and older who are unable to leave their homes to administer the vaccines.

Governor extends modified Stay-at-Home Order for additional three weeks, DHHS directive issued

RALEIGH — State officials continued the call for North Carolina residents to remain vigilant in the fight against COVID-19.

During a media briefing on Wednesday, Jan. 6, Governor Roy Cooper and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen stressed concern over North Carolina seeing record numbers in new cases of the novel coronavirus, hospitalizations and percent positive cases of the virus.

In recent days, North Carolina has experienced record high numbers of cases reported, as well as percent of tests that are positive and people hospitalized with COVID-19. The state also reports that more than 7,000 residents in the state have passed away in connection with the virus since its onset last March.

NC with 84 counties of critical spread

Against the backdrop of rising cases and concerning statistics, Cohen provided an update of the NCDHHS COVID-19 County Alert System.

As of January 6, 84 of North Carolina’s 100 counties are currently categorized as red, or critical, on the County Alert System map, indicating the highest level of viral spread, with 12 counties classified as orange, or substantial risk level of spread, and four counties are classified in the yellow tier, signifying significant risk of spread. Avery, Ashe, Mitchell and surrounding counties are all classified in the red tier with the exceptions of Watauga and Burke counties, which are classified in the orange tier.

The full COVID-19 County Alert System report can be found by clicking to https://files.nc.gov/covid/documents/dashboard/COVID-19-County-Alert-System-Report.pdf.

“No matter where you live, work, worship or play, COVID-19 remains a deadly threat, and we’ve got to treat it that way,” Gov. Cooper said. “A new highly contagious strand of the virus has been detected in the United States, and we need to act as if it’s already here in North Carolina. This should inspire every one of us to double down on our safety precautions.”

Stay-at-Home Order extension

Cooper announced that the Modified Stay at Home Order currently in place through Friday, Jan. 8, is extended for three weeks through January 29. The full text of Executive Order No. 188 may be viewed by clicking to https://files.nc.gov/governor/documents/files/EO188-Extension-of-Modified-Stay-at-Home-Order.pdf.

“This virus did not disappear at midnight on December 31,” Cooper noted. “In fact, North Carolina (has had) some of our highest case counts, percent positives, hospitalizations and ICU bed usage numbers in the past few days.”

Cooper also announced the mobilization of the NC National Guard to coordinate with NCDHHS and NC Emergency Management in assisting local health departments and hospitals with efforts to disseminate the COVID-19 vaccine to communities across the state.

“Getting the vaccine out quickly is the most urgent priority right now,” Cooper explained. “We’ll use everything and everyone needed to get the job done.”

The Centers for Disease Control released information earlier in the week indicating that North Carolina ranks among the slowest states in the nation in regard to distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. As of Tuesday, Jan. 5, the CDC said North Carolina had 498,450 doses delivered and had administered 121,881. The state’s vaccination rate per 100,000 people made North Carolina the 12th-slowest state in the country. Updated CDC data can be located by clicking to https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#vaccinations.

Secretarial Directive issued

Cohen issued a Secretarial Directive on Wednesday, Jan. 6, to provide continued clarity from the department on what is needed to protect the state populous.

“Public health data, contract tracing reports, and outbreak investigations indicate that in-home and other informal social gatherings are contributing to the rise in cases across the state. In familiar settings with friends and family, individuals may be more likely to forgo necessary precautions against transmission of COVID-19 such as maintaining social distance or wearing masks. The risk of transmitting and contracting COVID-19 is higher in indoor settings where individuals are in close physical contact (within 6 feet) for an extended period of time (more than 15 cumulative minutes),” the directive states. “While North Carolina has implemented many strategies to fight the spread of COVID-19, we must act now to save lives and protect our hospital capacity across North Carolina to ensure medical care is available to anyone who may need it, whether for COVID-19 or for any other reason.”

A number of items at the forefront of combatting the COVID-19 pandemic in North Carolina were indicated within the directive, including:

  • Do not leave your house unless necessary for essential activities.
  • Avoid leaving your house if you are over 65 years old or are high risk.
  • Do not gather with people you do not live with.
  • If you leave your house, wear a mask.
  • Avoid places where people are not wearing masks.
  • Stay away from crowds and places where people are gathering in large numbers.
  • If you have gathered with people who do not live with you, assume that you have become infected with the virus and get tested.

“There is an alarming amount of virus everywhere in our state,” Cohen stated. “We are in a very dangerous position. Every single North Carolinian needs to take immediate action to save lives and protect themselves and each other.”