AKRON, OHIO — A few months ago Cynthia Virden knew absolutely nothing about the plastics industry. PVC and ABS were meaningless abbreviations and injection molding machines appeared to be large, complicated hunks of steel.
That was before the Sebert Project.
Now Virden, a January graduate of the program, is employed at Akron's Ferriot Inc. as a machinist. She operates a Van Dorn injection press, and PVC and ABS comprise the most basic abbreviations in her plastics vocabulary.
A 31-year-old Akron native and mother of four, she never dreamed she would have a job working in the plastics industry. ``I have learned so much in such a short amount of time,'' Virden said. ``Even now I am always learning something new when I'm at my job.''
The Sebert Project, produced by the University of Akron's Polymer Training Center along with the Akron Enterprise Community, helps to train and place inner-city, low-income residents in entry-level jobs with local plastics companies. Sponsors tout the program as the only one of its kind in the United States.
The Sebert Project was named in memory of the late Kenneth Sebert, an Akron University professor. Sebert, who held a doctorate in mechanical engineering, conceived the welfare-to-work project in 1994. He died the same year from a heart attack. The Polymer Institute named the project after Sebert in 1996, to preserve his memory.
The 60-hour training provides certification upon successful completion and covers topics such as an overview of plastics processing, safety in the process area, materials, standard test methods and an overview of plastic molds and dies. It also includes courses about career opportunities, and basic interview and workplace skills.
Tayba Tahir, Sebert coordinator, said the program is bringing new opportunities to low-income Akronites.
``The training is free for inner-city Akron residents who qualify because we have received a federal grant to conduct the program,'' Tahir said.
Tahir said residents of all ages and backgrounds are taking advantage of the plastics training. She also said some of the graduates are nonviolent or first-time criminal offenders who are on probation and trying to start their lives over again. The four weeks of the Sebert program address a variety of skills.
``Two weeks of the program are dedicated to what we call soft skills, which is basically reviewing mathematical and writing skills and just learning the basics of how to be a responsible and productive employee,'' Tahir said. ``The other two weeks are devoted to learning hard skills like how to actually operate machinery and manufacture products in a safe fashion.''
The processing center is equipped with classrooms, processing laboratories and a variety of extrusion, molding and mill equipment.
Van Dorn Demag Corp. of Strongsville, Ohio, donated 85- and 170-ton injection molding machines to the program.
Bob Digiantonio, instructor for the Sebert Project, tries to teach his students so they can learn a trade — not just find a job.
``I want my students to come out of the program knowing exactly what it is going to take to do well at a job in the plastics industry,'' he said. ``I want my students to be familiar with documentation, moisture analysis, and how to recognize molding defects.''
Digiantonio is an injection molding specialist at Plastics 101, a consulting and training firm in Canton, Ohio, that works closely with the Polymer Training Center.
He said he is a firm believer in spending extra time with his class covering Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.
The Society of Plastics Engineers ``really supported this program and I wanted to be sure that all of my students understood how to be safe when using machinery,'' he said.
The Sebert Project accepts 15-20 students per session. The last four-week session ended in May and the next will begin in October. The program has graduated 17 students so far and Tahir said all have been placed at local plastics companies. She hopes to enroll about 35 students in the program by fall.
Joe Quinby, a January graduate of the program, has a job as a machine operator in the thermoforming department at Landmark Plastics in Akron.
Quinby, like Virden, had no mechanical background prior to completing the sessions.
``The program enlightened me to the plastics industry,'' Quinby said. ``I had worked in retail before and had no knowledge of the various areas such as injection molding and thermoforming. This program has also given me a second chance for school.''
Quinby has been at Landmark since February, and personnel director Debra Rice said he is an outstanding employee.
``What Joe lacked with his mechanical background he made up for with his attitude,'' Rice said. ``If someone has the right attitude we can teach them to do any kind of job.''
Dave Murphy, director of human resources at Ferriot Inc., said attitude makes the difference.
``We are very happy with Cynthia and I think that she is very happy with us,'' Murphy said. ``She is a very hard worker and you can depend on her to be here on time and to do the job right.''
Tahir said she feels some of the most important skills taught in the Sebert Project deal with how to be a responsible and courteous employee. She said tardiness and absenteeism are not accepted, and students are taught a lot about personal responsibility.
``We are very strict with attendance because we want students to learn how to be responsible with the new jobs they will eventually be placed in,'' she said. ``I think it's worth it though, because on graduation day you can see the looks of pride and accomplishment on their faces.''
``I learned that no matter what, I have to be on time,'' Virden said. ``Unless it was an emergency we were expected to be in class during the course of the program and now I realize that I need to be at my job.''
Other Akron-area firms that have employed Sebert graduates include Americhem Inc., ASW/Gilchrist Molding Center, and Spunfab Adhesives.
``We want students to go beyond merely receiving an entry-level job,'' Digiantonio said. ``We want students to be able to see the career potential of plastics industry jobs.''
Virden said the day she graduated from the program was one of her happiest.
``I was so happy and excited to have completed a program where I knew I would be able to get a job that could help me to raise my family,'' she said.