Technical jobs go unfilled in Buena Vista

By Caroline Leak

Buena Vista Director of Economic Development Brian Brown shook his head as he pointed at his computer screen.

“Let me show you what scares me,” he said. Brown had opened a database that compiles wage and labor statistics for every city and county in the state of Virginia.

Using this program, Brown can assess how attractive Buena Vista would be to prospective businesses. Brown can look up any industry and firm size, like a manufacturing firm looking to hire 100 people, and see how many people in Buena Vista have the marketable skills for those jobs. Localities with lots of people with the specific skills appear as green. Cities and counties with fewer skilled laborers earn colors that range from yellow to red.

For the industries Brown pulled up as examples, Buena Vista’s colors varied from orange to red.

“Having the right job skills is a key issue,” Brown said. He added that Rockbridge County’s relatively high property tax rate compared to nearby counties, such as Augusta, presented a greater challenge in bringing more jobs to Buena Vista – one of the reasons why Munters Corporation’s recent expansion has been a boon.

Munters is an international corporation that provides efficient air conditioning units for data centers of clients such as Apple, Google and Amazon. These massive machines are responsible for cooling down tens of thousands of square feet of what are essentially overheated computers.

In March, Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced Munters would hire 100 additional workers and expand its operations.

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Don Driscoll walks through the Buena Vista Munters facility as he explains how their cooling systems work. Photo by: Caroline Leak.

Don Driscoll is the company’s director of operations in Virginia. He said Munters chose Buena Vista because it seemed that technical skills are more valued in rural areas.

“People out here still work on their cars and know how those kinds of things work,” Driscoll said.

Munters, with a 50,000 square foot facility in Natural Bridge, has hired 50 new employees.

The manufacturing industry employs roughly 32 percent of Buena Vista’s workforce, or about 850 people. Places like Everbrite, Northwest Hardwoods and Modine Manufacturing Company continue to employ many of these people while other companies have moved elsewhere.

The average manufacturing wage is $40,000, earning these manufacturing workers a higher purchasing power than that of the statewide average. In contrast, the rest of the Buena Vista workforce earns an average of $34,000 a year.

While Buena Vista has long been an industrial town, the jobs themselves are changing.

“They can’t just be regular assembly line workers anymore,” Driscoll said.

The new workers are paid $15-20 per hour and training each new employee costs about $5,000, he said. These employees now have experience in refrigeration or electricity and need to be able to read blueprints.

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As you walk farther down the warehouse, the products are closer to completion. Pictured are one story of the two-story units that cool massive data centers. Photo by: Caroline Leak.

“We expected it to be really difficult to find employees,” Driscoll said.

He said they are intentionally taking their time to fill the open positions to ensure that each worker is trained properly. About 50 percent of their hires come from Buena Vista, and the rest come in from within an hour’s radius.

“We build the most complicated equipment within our industry and probably our company,” Driscoll said. “We require a much higher skill set.”

Dabney S. Lancaster Community College has a Workforce Solutions and Community Education (WSCE) program for people who want to learn technical skills.

WSCE Vice President Gary Keener said they’re starting to get more requests to restart the HVAC – heating, ventilation and air conditioning – program.

“It’s the perfect storm for us to revive our HVAC nightly classes,” Keener said, referencing the recent job openings at Munters.

The college plans to resume HVAC classes this coming January.

Driscoll says these kinds of programs will help develop more skilled workers for other companies like Munters.

Lack of skill isn’t the only problem for companies in Buena Vista. Driscoll struggles to find reliable employees for temporary work as well.

“We joke that it’s not finding the right candidate for the job, it’s finding a person who can pass a drug test,” Driscoll said.

Brown affirmed that drug use is an issue, but generally only among the 5 percent unemployed population. Police Chief Keith Hartman said the vast majority of their drug charges involve repeat offenders.

“It’s more of a nuisance than anything, because these jobs are less mission-critical,” Driscoll said.

But, overall, Driscoll said he’s happy with the impact Munters has already had in Buena Vista.

“We’ve invested a lot of money in our equipment, processing and employees,” he said. “But at the end of the day, what drives me is the importance of this factory in the community.”