Need Skilled Workers? Try Growing Your Own

May 13, 2009
Apprenticeships are not given out casually at Micro Instruments. Historically, candidates were closely screened from among a pool of the brightest talents from area technical schools, meticulously selected to learn the manufacturing ...

Apprenticeships are not given out casually at Micro Instruments. Historically, candidates were closely screened from among a pool of the brightest talents from area technical schools, meticulously selected to learn the manufacturing trade over a rigorous four-year program.

But these are unusual times and Micro Instruments, a Rochester, NY, manufacturer of automation machines, has found qualified candidates are hard to find. Many high schools aren’t teaching shop classes anymore and technical schools have seen their student enrollments plummet.

New regulations at the state and federal levels aim to create more flexible apprenticeship programs, putting greater emphasis on demonstrated skills and knowledge.

So when 26-year-old JoVon Hucks rode his bicycle to the Micro Instruments facility day after day, begging for a job, their manufacturing manager took notice. Hucks had no previous experience whatsoever. He’d never taken a shop class and his math skills were rudimentary, at best. What he had, though, was a personality bursting with determination and initiative—enough for Micro Instruments to hire Hucks on the spot as a laborer in the machinist department, and to enroll him as an apprentice two years later.

Apprenticeships remain one of the most vital sources for new talent in manufacturing. At a time when the industry is faced with a shortage of highly skilled workers, apprenticeships offer companies the chance to train young, eager workers in a sophisticated trade for years at a time. These programs, like the planting of seeds, require careful cultivation. But with that patience and investment, employers can derive long-term answers to industry’s workforce challenges.

As a form of education, apprenticeships date as far back as the Middle Ages. But over recent decades their numbers have been impacted by declining interest among youth, along with companies facing budgetary considerations that have only grown more severe with the economic slump. In recent months, new regulations have been put in place at the state and federal levels aimed to create more flexible apprenticeship programs, putting greater emphasis on demonstrated skills and knowledge.

The most recent data from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills shows that, as of last summer, there were 1,979 registered apprenticeship programs in advanced manufacturing with the U.S. Department of Labor or at state apprenticeship agencies. From those programs, there were 13,072 registered apprentices.

For an industry predicated on a workforce with highly refined skills, apprenticeships—regardless of the cost—yields the best source for talent.

“It’s never certain if all those apprentices are going to make it as workers,” says Jack Schron, president of Jergens, a manufacturer in Cleveland of tooling components and workholding products. “But at least it puts them on a path where you’re training them and teaching them how things run the right way. That’s an invaluable resource.”

A diverse education
Last month, some of the country’s most talented metalworkers competed at the 2009 National Apprentice Competition presented by the National Tooling & Machining Association (NTMA) and the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) in Indianapolis.

Over two intensive days, the apprentices worked on projects with lathes, mills, and surface grinders, while demonstrating their general knowledge through written exams.

Over the past 27 years, Micro Instruments has regularly sent apprentices to the competition, five of whom have placed in the top-five finishers. In April, the company sent William J. Kleisle, though he didn’t place.

Micro Instruments boasts a highly productive apprentice program. Of its 100 full-time employees, 68 came through its intensive training system.

“The big thing they do is spend the first year or so of the apprenticeship moving us around from one area of the shop to another,” says Chris Magee, an instrument and gage maker, who competed last year at the NTMA/NIMS competition. “On any given day, I can be on a mill, a lathe, or a grinder. You aren’t pigeon-holed to one machine. It gives you a taste of what they do within the company and a sense of what you’re good at.”

Hydromat follows a similar philosophy. The St. Louis manufacturer of precision transfer machines puts its apprentices through a thorough training program in the machine shop and grind shop, but also through every department in the company. Hydromat’s president, Bruno Schmitter, crafted the approach to apprenticeships on the method that is used in Europe.

“They run through eight departments in total,” says Steve Thomas, Hydromat’s machine shop superintendent and apprenticeship supervisor. “We want them familiar not only with the machine shop but also assembly, our service area, our quality, fabrication and paint, electrical assembly, mechanical engineering, and general knowledge. You have to be dedicated to complete this.”

New regulations
In December, the U.S. Department of Labor implemented new regulations governing apprenticeships, the first such changes in 31 years.

Until now, apprenticeships have been defined by the time spent under instruction—often set at 10,000 hours over four years until completion. The new regulations offer provisions for competency-based apprenticeships, electronic and distance training, and the issuance of interim credentials.

The new changes will offer companies the flexibility of continuing timebased apprenticeships or moving to ones that are competency-based, or to take a hybrid approach to each. There is still a minimum requirement of 144 hours per year, but it is also augmented by technology-based instruction, including electronic media.

Competency-based training has significant advantages, one being multiple entry points, depending on the skill and work history of a given individual. If, for instance, there are 20 competencies required and someone already can pass seven of those, he or she wouldn’t start at the same point as a beginner.

It also lends itself to cross-training. Competency-based training means someone with advanced training as a machinist can move quickly to a later entry point for die-making or CNC programming.

Another noteable change is that the registration agencies will be able to offer apprentices official interim credentials. These credentials can be used toward college credits.

“It’s nice because a person isn’t waiting until the end of the program to get some kind of reward,” says Steve Mandes, executive director at NIMS. “They’re not having to put in 10,000 hours to do it. At the same time, the company gets a lot out of it because it can recoup its investment faster.”

Revised regulations also require State Apprenticeship Agencies to be in steady compliance with the U.S. Department of Labor—fusing the process for easier recognition of skills among the states.

“If you’re an apprentice in Ohio, it means you’ve passed certain tests and you have certain skills that have the same meaning in California,” says Jergens’ Schron, who also serves as CEO of online training service Tooling University. “These are significant changes. With these credentials being adopted at the national level, it has more universal appeal than a local apprenticeship program would.”

The sheer cost
Every Saturday, over five months, a dozen or more teenagers spend their mornings at Fredon Corp., in Cleveland, learning the basics of manufacturing. Each student is taught how to produce a non-firing cannon made from bronze, brass and aluminum. Over the course of months, the students take turns on lathes, mills and CNC machines, burring, sawing and grinding. By the end of the course, they’ve crafted something with their own hands.

From this program, Fredon Corp. lays the groundwork for many of its future apprentices. The company’s president, Roger Sustar, estimates that nearly every one of his employees that is under the age of 35 has gone through its apprenticeship program.

While the success of these apprenticeships is beyond question, it comes at a prohibitive cost.

“To tell you the truth, I have no idea what the cost is,” says Sustar. “All I can tell you is, if you don’t invest, you’re won’t be here. If I looked at how much it cost, I’d probably stop it tomorrow. That’s why so many big companies don’t run these programs.”

According to Schron, the average apprentice costs Jergens between $20,000 to $30,000 per year.

“With the schooling, the time away for the operator, then having someone assist that operator—it adds up,” says Schron. “You have tuition, their mentor, plus it’s fully loaded with benefits. But anybody that ever says they want to go through it, we’ll fund it.”

At Micro Instruments, the first year of an apprenticeship is solely spent familiarizing the individual with the operations and little more.

“We consider that first year—and I hate to put it in this term—a total write-off,” says Tom Smith, Micro Instrument’s manufacturing manager.

Rethinking training
The last time the United States endured a recession, in 2001, apprenticeships were hit hard. According to NIMS’ Mandes, companies both large and small did away with apprenticeships, many questioning whether the cost was worth the benefit. What they didn’t calculate, however, was the result of abandoning the programs.

“When they cut the apprenticeships, they not only lost their training staff, but also their institutional memory of how they did it,” says Mandes. “So when these companies came out of the recession and wanted to reenergize the training, they had to start from scratch, designing a curriculum, finding instructors and mounting a program. So structured programs, like apprenticeships, really hurt.”

Mandes emphasizes that he’s not seeing the same corporate reaction today. Still, many companies have had to reevaluate how they run their apprenticeships. Hydromat, for instance, has had to place a six-month freeze on its program.

Remmele Engineering used to rotate its apprentices between its five Minnesota facilities, learning the particular skills demanded at each plant. But in recent years, the company has undergone a transition, utilizing its supply chains and out-sourcing some of its work. Remmele no longer does much grinding or turning. Consequently, neither are its apprentices.

“In many ways, it was very inefficient,” says Darryl Jarombek, Remmele’s human resource manager. “At the time they graduated from the apprenticeship program, they would suggest which plant they wanted to work in. They may, in fact, only utilize one narrow skill set that they learned when they were in the apprenticeship program. What happened is not all bad. It’s more efficient now.”

Remmele’s apprentices now undergo a more focused form of training, designed to have them producing as quickly as possible – often within their first year.

Sowing seeds
If the cost of apprenticeships, prohibitive as they might be, guaranteed a long-term fixture within a company’s workplace, maybe it would assuage skepticism. But for some employers, the problem with apprenticeships is that they guarantee nothing. A company can pump $80,000 over four years into training an employee, only to watch as its rival down the street, with no apprentice program to speak of, poaches him away by offering a higher salary.

“That’s true,” says Mandes. “And I don’t think you can get around that. It happens. But in many ways, that’s the cost of maintaining a highly skilled workforce. And the opposite of not doing it is unthinkable.”

Mandes also argues that one of the offsetting benefits of an apprenticeship program is its use as a recruiting tool. By developing local and state ties, a company can draw bright, diverse talent from its area.

Fredon Corp. has gone to great lengths to emphasize this point. The company president, Sustar, has a youthful workforce. Sometimes that youth, he says, can be puzzling.

“Let me give you an example,” says Sustar. “We have this kid, he’s 21 years old and about to enter into our apprenticeship program. He’s completely goofy-looking: moppy hair, earrings, tattoos. When you see a kid like that, you don’t want to hire him. But, he does a good job.

“That’s the thing with kids,” he says. “When you see youngsters do things right, it makes old timers like me want to continue to keep trying. I have no need to buy new equipment or invest in new buildings or these kinds of programs. I’m getting too old. But I do it anyway. I know that if I don’t do that, there will be no future.”

Apprentices prove their skills at NTMA/NIMS
Mark Evangelist, an apprentice with Stellar Precision Components, emerged from a field of eight regional champions to win firstplace in the 37th annual NTMA/ NIMS National Apprentice Competition Indianapolis in April.

The contest pits eight of the top apprentices from around the United States for two intensive days producing projects with lathes, mills, and surface grinders, while demonstrating their general knowledge in a written exam.

Evangelist, from Jeannette, Penn., took top honors, while Josh Geschke of MAG Giddings & Lewis, of Fond du Lac, Wisc., came in second, and Andrew Warren of Six Sigma, Inc. finished third.

The champions were named at an awards banquet on April 18, in which Minister Guillaume Scheurer, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Switzerland, made the presentations.

This year’s annual event was hosted by the NTMA’s Indiana Chapter, and machining lab facilities were provided by Ivy Tech Community College, located in Indianapolis.

The seven champions reached the finals by prevailing in local competitions across the U.S. Each regional champion had to successfully complete the online exam for the NIMS Machining Level I: Measurement, Materials, Safety credential to be eligible for the national competition. NIMS waived the registration and testing fees as part of their sponsorship of the event.

As sponsor of the first-place champion, Stellar Precision Components received the grand prize, a 30% discount off the purchase price of selected models of EDM or high speed milling machines from Agie Charmilles, along with additional cost savings on tools and accessories.

The top three winners also receive a 10-day expense-paid trip to Switzerland, hosted by the Swiss Embassy to the United States.

In addition to participation plaques, trophies, and a variety of donated measuring instruments and hand tools, each contestant received a wooden tool chest from H. Gerstner & Son, Dayton, OH, a copy of the Machinery’s Handbook 28th Toolbox Edition, the Metalworking Sink or Swim —Tips and Tricks for Machinists, Welders, and Fabricators, as well as a replica Collectors’ Edition of the first Machinery’s Handbook.

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