Transfer Flow, Inc. Equips Students for Careers in Manufacturing
By Melissa Mendonca
Creating the Skills to Build
Story by Melissa Mendonca
Photos by Syerra Eickmeyer
A press brake system isn’t the fanciest machine on the floor of Transfer Flow Inc., a Chico-based manufacturer of after-market fuel systems founded by Bill Gaines. Next to the robot welder and Haas Vertical Machining Center elsewhere on the shop floor, it seems pretty darn simple.
Yet it provides a succinct example of a dilemma manufacturers such as Gaines face: to find employees skilled in G-code, the operating system of computers that program just about every major piece of equipment he owns. Although he’s been able to train within, in recent years Gaines has had to hire press brake operators from Washington and Modesto.
For a business that has had to add a new building to its facility every four or five years since its beginnings in 1983, this simply won’t do. Especially for someone like Gaines, who holds a missionary-like zeal that manufacturing is the key to economic prosperity for the North State. He buys American-made machinery – that Haas machine was made in Ventura – and he wants to employ North State residents.
“It’s our feeling that if we can get our teachers to teach the skills needed in manufacturing, we’ll attract more manufacturing,” he says, citing statistics that manufacturing attracts more money per job to the community than any other, including medical and information technology.
When a top customer moved to Texas, Transfer Flow’s state-of-the-art laser cutter allowed it to remain competitive with a company in Mexico because improved efficiencies made up for the added expense of shipping a further distance, allowing the company to sell at the same price as when the customer was based in California. Keeping up with new technology, then, allows the business to keep its competitive edge. Finding the right people to run the technology is imperative. So Gaines is going to develop his own.
No longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the company – he passed it on to his daughters and their husbands in 2013 – Gaines has made supporting local schools his second act. He’s developing critical support systems, including training and materials, for 12 North State high schools and local community colleges, as well as Chico State University.
For Los Molinos agriculture teacher Melissa Stegall, Gaines’ support is informing her entire welding program. “Coming from a new, young teacher’s perspective, it’s amazing I can go to him for information,” she says. “We’re organizing our shop and are getting more of the tools industry uses.” Gaines has been advising on purchases for a recent Pathways grant the school received from Shasta College. For purchases that will remain out of range of the school, such as a laser, Gaines invites advanced students to his shop to work on his equipment.
“He’s an amazing asset and resource to the program,” she adds, noting that Gaines has taken a seat on the ag program’s advisory board.
“We have a great workforce,” says Gaines. “Our employees want to work. They want to raise their kids here and they want their kids to get jobs here.” As a constantly growing business, Transfer Flow has potential to put many more people to work with living wages. “We ship our product around the world,” he adds, noting that China has become an important market. “We can almost double the fuel range of their vehicles.”
After-market fuel systems are necessary for vehicles modified for mobility reasons, to accommodate drivers in wheelchairs, for example. They are also needed in the bodies of wrecker vehicles. In China, they are being installed in large trucks that are now affordable in the growing economy but that can’t be fueled as frequently as needed due to limited availability of gas stations. “We’re a niche market manufacturer,” says Gaines.
While his business is niche, he notes that there are more than 150 mini mills in Butte County alone, all of which run off G-code. That’s why Gaines has been so integral to developing a curriculum to teach the code to area teachers. “We’ve got to be able to help with these issues that we deal with every day,” he says. He’s particularly proud of a relationship at Pleasant Valley High School in Chico where the welding teacher and math teacher are working together so students understand algebra and trigonometry on a practical level as the math behind welding fabrication.
“We are getting new business just because we have this laser machine and we know how to do G-code,” he says. Gaines envisions a world where high school and college graduates can step into the world of local manufacturing with the skills needed to immediately go to work.
“Even if they can’t find a job locally,” he says. “They have a great skill set to find a job not too far from home.”