The new face of manufacturing

The new face of manufacturing

The Brickle Group employees, from left, Scarleth Sanchez, Yenifer Jolon and Abigail Colon make berets at The Brickle Group’s Singleton Street production complex. (Breeze photo by Lauren Clem)
In Woonsocket, state-funded program trains a new generation of textile workers

WOONSOCKET – Manufacturing has changed greatly in the years since the Blackstone Valley’s industrial boom. Production has moved overseas, and many of the once-great mill complexes have become condos or abandoned structures as companies look elsewhere to create their products.

But at The Brickle Group, a Woonsocket-based textile manufacturer that operates on Singleton Street, the tradition continues, adapting to industry changes even as most of the company’s peers have long since closed up shop.

Max Brickle, president of The Brickle Group and the third generation of family heads-of-operation, attributes the company’s survival to its ability to diversify and expand operations over the years. Originally founded as H. Brickle and Son Inc. textile fiber recycling business, the company acquired Northwest Woolen Mills in 1968 and Bouckaert Industrial Textiles in 2000, expanding operations to include wool and non-woven textile production. Today, the company produces berets and Navy peacoats for the Department of Defense and supplies industrial products to companies like Aspen Aerogels even as it continues to supply its own production lines with recycled fibers.

“That’s our big competitive advantage – we’re fully vertical,” Brickle said during a visit to the factory last week.

When Hyman Brickle founded the original business in 1937, Woonsocket was still experiencing the effects of a wave of French-Canadian immigration that coincided with the city’s industrial boom in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Today’s workforce might not speak Quebec French on the factory floor, but the demographics, though different, bear an important similarity. According to Brickle, the company draws heavily from an immigrant workforce, some of whom arrive with limited English skills.

“We always rely on a pretty large immigrant population, and the problem now is the immigrant population is shrinking,” he explained.

That’s not the only problem facing the expanding company. Like many manufacturers in Rhode Island, Brickle said the company has for several years struggled to find qualified candidates for its manufacturing positions. Part of that he attributes to changing ideas about manufacturing jobs and higher education, and part of it to a growing cohort of millennials who stay no longer than 12 to 24 months at one job before moving on to the next big thing. The company has begun recruiting candidates for internship programs from as far away as Clemson University and North Carolina State in order to fill its ranks with skilled workers.

“I think it’s lack of knowledge, but also a very tight labor market in the state,” he said.

Three years ago, The Brickle Group took matters into their own hands. Meeting with four other Rhode Island-based manufacturers, the companies agreed their main difficulty was finding qualified workers and decided to be proactive about developing a skilled workforce in the region. The result was The Phoenix Partnership, a training program for newly hired and incumbent employees that provides the skills they need to move up the manufacturing ladder.

The program is overseen by Polaris MEP, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the state’s manufacturing industry, and fully funded by the Department of Labor and Training through Real Jobs RI. Participants take classes through the Manufacturing Center of Excellence and through partnerships with New England Institute of Technology to grow their skills in manufacturing and management. According to Beth Proctor, director of human resources at The Brickle Group, 55 of the company’s approximately 110 employees have gone through some part of the program, and 15 percent have been promoted since it began.

“What it allows us to do is hire somebody who’s less skilled and then put them through this program and then they get those skills,” she said.

The program draws heavily from lean business practices, a philosophy in manufacturing that urges the entire company to get involved with eliminating waste and maximizing efficiency in the production cycle. Employees participate through initiatives like an idea board and by reporting all near-misses and inefficiencies on the factory floor. They’re recognized for their involvement and offered training opportunities, measures that encourage promotion within the company.

“It’s a whole growth and development path for them,” said Proctor.

Last week, Gov. Gina Raimondo and representatives from the Department of Labor and Training toured the company’s facilities, remarking afterward on the importance of training programs in continuing to grow the state’s changing industry.

“It’s different now than my father’s manufacturing,” said Raimondo. “The stuff you saw today is pretty technical, but they’re good jobs, these people are making 20, 30 dollars an hour or more, so they’re good jobs to have, no college degree.”

Lindsey Brickle, who serves as program manager for The Phoenix Partnership, said the program has now begun offering classes in Spanish as well as ESL classes to better serve the state’s workforce. The companies involved with the program, which now number 12, hope to eventually form an association to continue supporting manufacturing development in the state.

“A lot of our employers have a need and want to send their entire workforce through the programs,” she said.

As workforce demographics and product demands change – the U.S. Navy plans to phase out the iconic peacoat by 2020 – Max Brickle said the company plans to continue adapting to industry changes and providing the training opportunities to ensure its own growth. It’s a different world than the one where Hyman Brickle launched his company in 1937, but a new generation of leadership – and workers – have stepped up to keep the city’s manufacturing tradition alive.