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Tyson employees learn new skills, advance careers through Hawkeye Community College training program

Tyson employee works on industrial maintenance equipment posted on Friday, December 3, 2021 in  College News

WATERLOO — The labor-intensive work of processing pork at Tyson Fresh Meats means there’s a lot of people stationed on its production lines.

But plenty of machinery is needed, as well, to keep those lines running – all tended to by the plant’s 214 industrial maintenance staff.

For more than two decades, Tyson has relied on a partnership with Hawkeye Community College to train many of those employees.

The 1+2 program provides hands-on training for Tyson employees at Hawkeye’s Cedar Falls Center. As originally conceived, the training would last a year but is now completed in 7-1/2 months. Afterwards, the employees are required to work for the company in their new role for at least two years.

Starting salary for graduates of the industrial maintenance training is $68,000 per year.

“A little over 200 people have joined the program,” said Roger Jones, maintenance training supervisor at the Tyson plant. Of those, “97 people are still employed” there.

From the initial positions assigned to them, a range of opportunities are available at the company. Among those are computer technicians, front line mechanics, supervisors and more.

The training “pretty much opens the door to advance to any level they would set their goal to,” said Jones. It has been so successful that “five or six other” Tyson pork and beef plants followed Waterloo’s lead and now have similar programs.

Ale Naderevic and Alex Harkness went through the HCC training about 10 years ago, both after working on the production line. Naderevic had been with Tyson 14 years while Harkness was employed there about six months before starting. The company also hires people who go right into the 1+2 training program.

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Both are computer maintenance electrical tech leads, dealing with automated equipment at the plant. Harkness works 12-hour day shifts four days per week while Nadarevic works the nine-hour second shift Monday through Friday.

Harkness, a La Porte City native, left Iowa after high school to earn a degree that would allow him to become a video game designer or programmer. He decided going to a university wasn’t for him and came home after two quarters. After looking for work and doing odd jobs, he applied to Tyson at the suggestion of a cousin.

He was hired and started a shift cutting up meat, but noticed some of the other jobs being done at the plant – like those in the industrial maintenance positions.

“I wasn’t really liking standing around on the production line,” said Harkness. He learned about the training program and enrolled, joining an electrical crew after finishing it. He worked on that for eight years before moving to his current position.

Naderevic was trained at the same time in the Hawkeye program. He is a refugee from Bosnian who didn’t finish high school because of the war in that country.

He arrived in New York state in 1996 and came to work at Tyson in Waterloo the next year when the company recruited him. During his years on the production line “mostly I was working with a straight knife, cutting.”

He also met his wife at the plant. By the time they had one child and another one on the way, he was looking to get on a different shift to better handle the family’s child care. Going through the training and joining an industrial maintenance crew made that possible.

Naderevic started on a support packaging crew after completing the training and stayed there for six years until moving to his current position.

The training is an “learn and earn” program, where they’re paid an hourly wage. “They go to school Monday through Thursday and they have Sunday as an optional work day,” said Jones, where they shadow an industrial maintenance employee. Currently, “they’re making a little over $18 an hour to go to school” and are also paid for a mandatory four-hour homework period done at the plant.

When Harkness and Naderevic went through the program, participants didn’t draw a paycheck for the training. Plant management decided to change that two years ago.

Hawkeye and Tyson are able to provide this through the state’s Accelerated Career Education program. They sign an agreement every five years to continue the training.

“It requires the student to pay 20% and the company pays another 20% (of the cost),” said Pam Wright, HCC’s director of corporate and business solutions. Student costs are covered through payroll deduction while going through the training that amounts to $40 per week.

Remaining costs are covered by state job credits through the Iowa Economic Development Authority. Hawkeye has multiple ACE program agreements, which had an allocation of $224,938 during the 2021 fiscal year ending in June. Among the college’s other agreements is one with John Deere and Kryton Engineered Metals for the IGNITE program, which provides training in manufacturing.

Iowa’s 15 community colleges have a total of $5.4 million in ACE job credits with 109 active agreements.

“Everything they’re learning in school is things they’ll see in real life,” said Jones, of the 1+2 program. “You’ll be working with senior people while you’re going to school and you’re going to be tearing into $30,000-$40,000 machines when you’re going to school. It is designed to take someone with little or no experience and train them and give them a job.”

By Andrew Wind, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier

Tags

  1. Business and Community Education
  2. Industrial Maintenance
  3. Tyson
  4. Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier
  5. workforce development
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