The training team at DeWys Manufacturing

The training team at DeWys Manufacturing.

Need Skilled Workers? Start Your Own University

How a small company, DeWys Manufacturing, started a 'little school' in its plant that's paid off, big time.

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.

Partnering with High Schools

“As time went on, I said to the instructor, ‘Hey, I know we’re working with a lot of engineering students,’” says DeWys. “‘We don’t hire a lot of engineers. There’s got to be a group of young people that are not going to a four-year college that are good with their hands, they have good mechanical ability, they just want a job, maybe they can’t afford college. What about that group of students?"

Coopersville High School happens to be one of the last in the area that has a strong vocational program, says DeWys. Together, the company and the school looked at ways to restructure some of the vocational curriculum “to onboard these students better before they graduate,” says DeWys. That bloomed into the Manufacturing Engineering Partnership Program. DeWys leaders visit Coopersville and other area schools to talk about their jobs and advise them on lean and best practices, and take the students on a plant tour. Interested students take a mechanical reasoning test and practice their interviewing skills.

(Apparently, the idea is catching on: Other area companies have since joined MEPP. To participate, they must commit to paid training or tuition reimbursement and also have a presence in the school and on the MEPP board.)

DeWys invites handful of promising students to enter DeWys University once they graduate. Those 12 weeks are another opportunity for the company to see if the rookie is a good fit.

“When they come out of high school, this is their first full-time job, so you want to make sure they understand what they’re getting into,” says Elsner. “With some, you see the look of sheer panic. With others, it’s that excitement, that engagement with the machines.

“I like to have my trainers take them out on the floor and talk to them about the machines and get their [impressions]. My press brake guy loves to ask them what video games they like and show them the computer screen and 3-D monitor. It’s very important my trainers are involved in this process because they’re putting their time and talent into these people.”

The 12-week paid training is 40 hours, and then the graduates are hired on as full-time employees. “Our goal is a good fit,” says Elsner, noting that the mechanical reasoning test can be a tough hurdle to clear. “Right now I’m struggling to find a press brake person. We want to make a good investment.”

DeWys now has three employees devoted to training. The classes are very small, to optimize time and space. Welding usually has two students. “Three seemed a little too challenging,” says Elsner. “Press brake we tried to do more than one at a time, but that becomes challenging because my press brakes aren’t necessarily all next to each other. Plus, you need to keep production going. We have to play nice in the sandbox and make sure we’re meeting production and still training.”

DeWys says any personnel and production shifts he’s had to make have been well worth it. When the company recently built a new addition to the plant, it included a new classroom for DeWys University.

“All us manufacturers, we’re all just beating a dead cat saying we can’t find people,” he says. “Well, you’ve got to step up and do something about it.”

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