DeWys Manufacturing in Marne, Mich., has historically struggled to find skilled workers to fill openings for welders, machinists, and press brake operators. Part of the problem is that the family-owned metal fabrication company is small and lacks instant name recognition, and part is that it’s located in Marne, Mich., an unincorporated community of about 3,000 just far enough away from Grand Rapids to make it inconvenient to get to. A job fair the company put on in 2011, blaring trumpets with radio and newspaper advertising, was a bust. Fourteen people showed up. Only one met the standards for a formal interview, and he didn’t get the job.

That’s when the conversation shifted to “we need to do something different,” says Laura Elsner, DeWys’ workforce development/human resources manager. “Let’s create the training programs and find the right people.”

With a smattering of desks and chairs, an underused room, and the know-how of several staffers with previous training experience, DeWys University was born. Elsner, who had developed curriculum as an instructor at Davenport University, began by creating a 12-week training course that along with job-specific skills includes a company orientation with sections on safety training and an introduction to lean principles.

“It’s a syllabus like you’d see in a university classroom setting,” marvels Jon DeWys, the company’s president. “A very thorough week-by-week.”

Kevin Bleeker, a welder who is also a gifted on-the-job trainer gave input along the way.

“The two of us sat down and said, ‘What really makes a good qualified Level 1 welder?’” says Elsner. “We started to brainstorm on what that meant, and we sat down and created what we needed to make that Level I welder successful.”

In the four years since, DeWys University has extended its scope to other departments and more advanced training levels. The company uses existing equipment for the training. The biggest investment is in personnel as several shop-floor employees now spend most of their time teaching others.

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 In addition to new employees who’ve graduated from the 12-week paid training (they get their uniforms and recognition at a staff meeting), nearly all of DeWys’ staff of 150 have received additional training, from welders aiming for Level II or III certification to a hi-lo operator who aspires to be a Level I laser cutter.

 “If they want to learn something new, they can,” says DeWys. “Say they’re in weld Level III and they learn press brakes. That compensation will tack on to what they already have, so all of a sudden they’re cross-trained. That makes them a more valuable team member.”

And it’s good for morale. “We can show them a path now,” says DeWys. “Before if they said they wanted to be something else, everybody was like ‘Yeah, OK, if we’ve got time.’ Now we have structure. And a number of our team members really ask for this additional training and that’s been good for how our employees feel about us. Just that loyalty, that culture—it really seems to have benefitted us in a number of ways.”

Elsner has put together curricula for welding, press brake, machining, paint line and laser cutting. “I have some kind of a training package for most all of my areas on the shop floor,” she says. “And multiple levels.”

 But there’s another aspect to this: A classroom isn’t going to fill itself with bright, eager recruits. That’s why the university isn’t a stand-alone operation. Key to its success is the company’s relationship with high schools and colleges within a 10-to-15-mile radius. At the nearby Coopersville Public School District, the relationship began 15 years ago with a high school summer camp where kids built battery hybrid cars to race based on engineering consumption and speed.