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Mahlon Robinson F

Generation Now Leadership: From Military to Manufacturing at Graphic Packaging International

July 19, 2023
A training program for military veterans opened advanced manufacturing opportunities for Mahlon Robinson.

Name: Mahlon Robinson

Age: 29

Company: Graphic Packaging International

Background/Education: Army veteran, electrical apprenticeship program, Academy of Advanced Manufacturing

Position: Automation Controls Supervisor

Former military policeman Mahlon Robinson celebrates his one-year anniversary this month at Graphic Packaging International, where he works as an automation controls supervisor and enthuses about his experience at the manufacturer’s Kalamazoo, Michigan, mill.

The job challenges him. The company appreciates his efforts. And because he “hates the heat,” even the location is a benefit, Robinson says, as he prefers the cooler climes of the northern states.

It’s not a position Robinson envisioned several years ago when he was updating his resume in search of better opportunities. It took an unexpected encounter with a program aimed at helping U.S. veterans gain the skills needed by advanced manufacturing (and aid in addressing the workforce shortage) to set him on a high-tech career path. Now the former military man is making his mark in manufacturing.

Maintaining a Highly Automated Manufacturing Environment

Little more than a year ago, the Kalamazoo site completed a massive expansion project (well over $500 million), adding significant automation and the latest technologies. It also upped the company’s need for the computing and problem-solving skill sets Robinson brings to his position.

On any given day, Robinson transitions among a variety of tasks: assisting with process control changes to the automated machinery, troubleshooting equipment issues and working with electricians and millwrights to get those issues resolved, and coaching new operators who may not be familiar with the touchscreens they use to monitor or operate equipment.

It’s work that feeds his interests. “It’s more mentally challenging than it is physically,” he says. “And also, just not everybody can do it.”

Generation Now stories focus on challenges and opportunities facing industry as multiple generations of leaders take on responsible roles in manufacturing. The first piece ran in the spring of 2022 and won a national award for manufacturing business writing.

Stories include:

Robinson’s path from the military to manufacturing was not a direct one. Upon completing his six-year military service with the U.S. Army, he became an industrial electrician, having heard from a former fellow soldier that there was money to be made in the electrical trades. He learned the trade on the job; he learned via an apprenticeship program; and he even got into several manufacturing plants as a contractor to do electrical work. It was a physically demanding position.

Four years later, it was time for a change. Robinson updated his resume, uploaded it to Indeed.com and the next day received an email from a recruiter who asked if he might be interested in a program opportunity. The recruiter was talking about the Academy of Advanced Manufacturing, a joint initiative between Rockwell Automation and the ManpowerGroup. The academy recruits veterans with technical skills and assesses their likelihood of success in the program and in advanced manufacturing jobs.

Initially Robinson was skeptical. “I read the email. It sounded way too good to be true,” he says. He asked his then fiancée, now wife, for her opinion, and both agreed it wouldn’t hurt to apply, “not thinking anything would ever happen.”

But something did happen and in just a few months Robinson was on his way to Milwaukee to participate in the 12-week AAM training program, which was provided – along with the room and board – free of charge. He learned a host of technical skills related to programmable logic controllers, HMIs and other facets of interpreting and troubleshooting automation systems. A goal, Robinson says, was to reach a skill level “where we are able to just take our computer up to the machine, diagnose the issue and then go from there to keep it running.”

Moreover, soft skills such as leadership and interpersonal communications were part of the coursework.

Then came Robinson’s introduction to Graphic Packaging. The manufacturer was among the AAM partner clients who have an interest in hiring successful graduates. Following interviews with several interested companies, Robinson accepted Graphic Packaging’s offer.

“They just seemed like the best fit for me,” he says, explaining that the manufacturer’s needs were the most closely aligned with the computing work he wanted to do. A year later, he’s pleased with his decision. The company values his opinion and has given him the space to try new things, Robinson says.

Often he’s the first line of defense when it comes to troubleshooting an equipment issue. “It’s kind of a good and bad feeling. Knowing that you’re the person that everyone is relying on. That’s also kind of scary, but it makes every day interesting,” he says. “Going to work, not knowing what’s going to happen. And knowing that you could be the reason that everything goes smoothly or the reason that everything goes bad.”

Still Learning and Growing

On a recent afternoon, Robinson received a presidential leadership award from the company. It’s an example of how quickly he’s earned recognition for a job well done. The salaried supervisor admits he is still learning, though, and says the large size of the Kalamazoo site presents opportunities to do just that.

“It gives me a lot more capabilities to learn and grow. I’m not just looking at the same thing every day,” he says. “It’s really enjoyable. And I like being able to … teach and coach the operators and learn from the engineers and my boss as well.”

“I’ve always heard you learn more when you teach, and I definitely feel that is a true statement.”

Robinson is early in his manufacturing career, but it’s never too soon to look ahead. He’s been mapping out potential career paths with his boss. It’s an interesting exercise because his position is a new one at Graphic Packaging (he’s one of just a few), created in response to the increasing automation among the company’s facilities. As a result of its newness, the “what’s next” component to his career is still under construction.

Still, the future excites him, and Robinson is appreciative of the training program that opened opportunities. “I’d recommend [the AAM training] for any veteran who has the background to go through it.”

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