Back in 2011, Siemens Energy closed a Canadian plant and folded its gas turbine production into operations at its Charlotte, N.C. operations. When managers at the Charlotte plant found themselves suddenly having to double their workforce, they realized they needed to do a better job training young workers for specialized positions.  

That was the impetus for starting an apprenticeship program at the plant in the summer of 2011, said Dawn Braswell, Siemens training manager at Charlotte. Braswell talked about best practices in apprenticeship programs to a packed room at the IndustryWeek Best Plants conference in Charlotte last week. (Of the hundred or so attendees, only a few raised their hands when asked if they actually had an apprentice program at their plants.)

“We decided, ‘Why are we not on board?’” recalled Braswell, noting that overseas, the German-headquartered Siemens already had a well-established apprenticeship program. “We needed to do like our parent company and make sure that we brought in apprentices.”

 

Siemens' Charlotte apprenticeship program sponsors about 10 students each summer for six weeks of training. Six or seven typically go on to the full four-year apprenticeship program, which includes 6,400 hours of on-the-job training and 1,600 hours of coursework at nearby Central Piedmont Community College. The apprenticeship is registered through the North Carolina Department of Commerce, so apprentices earn credentials along with their training.

For the first two years in the program, apprentices are contract workers, Braswell told the group. They’re each assigned a mentor and go through onboarding including safety training. After that, they apprentice as full-time employees. Once they graduate with a degree in applied science in either computer integrated machine or mechatronics, they receive employment at Siemens if a job is available.

Braswell said parents are often harder to sell on a career in manufacturing than students, thinking manufacturing is dirty, unreliable, lower-class work. Part of her job is educating the adults—taking them on a tour of the plant, “which sometimes is cleaner than my kitchen,” and showing them that their kids can earn more than some workers with four-year degrees.

“We do an open house and get them past the mindset, ‘This is dark, dingy, dirty, I don’t want my kid doing this because I worked in textiles and my grandfather worked in manufacturing, and my kids are going to go beyond that,'” said Braswell.

Last year, about 30 kids went on the tour, and 10 were accepted into the summer program.  They need a 2.5 grade point average to qualify, as well as high school coursework in algebra I and II and geometry.

The six weeks in summer gives Siemens another chance to screen them. “Are they on time?” said Braswell about what they’re looking for. “Are they engaged? If your supervisor says, ‘Sweep the floor,’ do you look at her like she has three heads?” If you do, you’re not a good fit.

Once they graduate from high school, apprentices spend four days a week working and one day in class. They’re paid for the day in class, and Siemens pays for their books and tuition, too.

“We’re investing a lot of money in these apprentices,” Braswell acknowledged. “We’re doing it because we can’t find anybody to do these jobs. So I can either train them later at a much higher cost, or I can train ‘em now.”

Currently, the students are being trained as CNC machinists and mechatronics electricians and technicians.

Braswell advised the conference attendees to get to know guidance counselors and career technical education directors and seek out nearby high schools that are interested in preparing their students for technical jobs; some just aren’t interested. Siemens brings science and math teachers into the plant in summer to see what they do. “That way, when they go back to school, they can tell a kid, ‘You need to know that.’”

She begins recruiting the next class of apprentices in October of the year before graduation.

Braswell said community colleges are a great resource because they’re set up to build curriculum around a company’s needs. “You can say, ‘You’re not teaching what we’re doing on the shop floor. I need you to train your folks in this.’”

If a plant only needs one or two apprentices, collaborate with other companies on an apprenticeship program, she advised. “You need welders and machinists, you get together and say, ‘I can take on one apprentice, this company can take on three,’ and before you know it, you’ve got enough to fill a class at college.”