SPRINGDALE, Ark. (AP) — Northwest Arkansas industries need people who can fix and maintain increasingly complex machinery, and they're partnering with northwest Arkansas schools to get them.

Pilgrim's Pride and Cargill have sent a few dozen workers through a year-old industrial maintenance apprentice training program at Northwest Technical Institute's Business and Industry Training Center. Eight people who will take their new skills to Cargill's meat processing complex in Springdale recently completed the program after a month of six-day, 55-hour weeks at the center.

Several of the new apprentices joked they lived at the center and subsisted on coffee and Little Debbie snacks, but they looked forward to a serious payoff: A hefty raise and chances for advancement in a line of work that's in high demand in a heavily automated industry.

"It's a future," said Jose Perez, who's worked at Cargill in various roles for a decade. "Machines are replacing people, so someone's got to take care of the machine."

The Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports that for years, area businesses and schools have partnered to try to meet the relentless demand for technicians and specialists in construction, manufacturing and other fields in a rapidly growing region. Jobs like these can get short shrift in a society that values bachelor's degrees, industry officials often say, but they can offer respectable pay in less time and with less student debt.

"The need for skilled maintenance is at an all-time high," said Shane Acosta, general manager for the Cargill plant, pointing to conveyor belt motors, high-speed packaging machines and control panels. The company paid the apprentices during the month-long course and covered tuition.

Proof for Acosta's point isn't hard to find. Multiple manufacturers a couple years ago covered half the $2.4 million price tag of the Career Academy of Siloam Springs, which offers a pre-apprenticeship course for high school juniors and seniors in industrial maintenance.

Tyson Foods recruiters at a recent workforce conference in Springdale announced the company got federal approval for a nationwide maintenance apprenticeship program in partnership with schools near the company's plants. The program could come to Arkansas plants in the coming months.

"We know we're getting what we're looking for," Tim Klinedinst, a senior technical recruiter at Tyson, said in an interview, adding the program will be open to people who don't yet work for Tyson and to veterans using the G.I. Bill. "I anticipate it to spread very quickly."

The Business and Industry Training Center is itself the product of public-private partnership. Glad Manufacturing, Tyson, Ozark Regional Transit and two dozen other companies support the center together with Northwest Technical Institute's foundation. Member companies send workers there for training in electronics, hydraulics and the like, and the center opened to the public two years ago, said Tom Freking, director for the institute's economic and workforce development.

The month-long intensive program started last year in partnership with the Serrano Group, a human-relations and training firm and one of the center's members. Serrano vets the applicants and provides instruction in leadership and other work skills, while foundation instructors teach how to wire, troubleshoot and repair machines.

"Us older people who are dying off or retiring, we don't have suitable replacements," said Marty Cloud, lead instructor at the center.

Dan Serrano, Serrano Group's founder, said companies have been completely satisfied with apprentices from the program.

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Information from: Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.nwaonline.com