Schott North America's Duryea, PA. plant plays host to the company's first apprenticeship class of eight recruits who will train in one of three skilled trades.

Workforce: Evading the 'Talent Cliff'

Nov. 14, 2012
With retirement looming for many of its skilled workers, Schott North America launches an apprenticeship program to meet its growing needs.

Schott North America recently joined the growing number of manufacturing companies that are stepping up to help train the next generation of skilled trade workers. Last month the Elmsford, N.Y.-based maker of special glass and glass systems announced the launch of its pilot U.S. apprenticeship program at its Duryea, Pa., production facility. There, eight apprentices are training in one of three trades – glass operator generalist, mason-metalsmith and maintenance machinist. The programs span two or three years, depending on the trade.

See Also: Manufacturing Workforce Management Best Practices

While the launch of the apprentice program is recent, recognition of the approaching skills shortage dates back some four years, according to Gerry Barnes, director of human resources for Schott North America. That's when a demographic study of the Pennsylvania location clearly revealed the aging of the workforce in Duryea.

The average age of the approximately 250 employees is 53. Over the next five years, the facility will lose about 30% of its workforce if those employees elect to retire around age 65, according to Barnes.

"We are going to be losing people pretty steadily," Barnes says. In addition, he said the technical skills required of production workers at the Duryea plant, part of Schott's advanced optics business unit, are neither commonplace nor easily learned.

Serious discussion about an apprenticeship program began some two years ago – during union negotiations, no less. Production workers at Duryea are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers International.

Progress toward the program began with the creation of an eight-member training team. Comprised of three salaried, supervisory employees and five production workers, the team assisted in the development of the apprenticeship program and monitors it today. Their early efforts included a team trip to Germany in 2011, where Schott North America's parent company is located and has a thriving apprentice program.

While patterned after the German model of apprenticeship, Schott North America's approach has been adapted to meet the requirements of the U.S. Department of Labor, as well as other factors. The program includes full-time employment and benefits, on-the-job training with mentors, rotation through a variety of departments, and classroom training, both online and in partnership with local educational institutions. Apprentices who successfully complete the program will receive their Labor Department journeyman's certification. Apprentices are not part of the union.

Schott Anticipates Hiring Graduates

The eight members of Duryea's initial class, selected from about 250 applicants, include two apprentices with fathers who work at the facility, as well as four veterans. Six of the eight are engaged in the glass- operator-generalist track.

Successful completion of the apprenticeships does not guarantee individuals employment at Schott North America's Duryea plant, but "we expect they will move into jobs here," Barnes says.  By the same token, he recognizes that graduates may choose to go elsewhere, taking Schott's investment with them.

"It's a risk you take," Barnes said. That said, he describes Schott's Duryea plant as a "destination" employer. "We're pretty sure everyone we hired has the idea of retiring [from] here."

Expansion Plans

Schott North America has six North American locations. It selected the Duryea facility as the site at which to launch its apprenticeship program for good reason. With the approaching talent cliff there, "it was obvious this needed to be the place we start," Barnes says. At 43 years old, the Duryea plant was also Schott's first operation in the United States.

Plans are to introduce the apprenticeship program to the other North America locations, where local management and employees support the idea. The local support is crucial, Barnes says.

"The only way this works is if you have buy in," he says.

The program also is customized by location. For example, Schott will introduce an apprenticeship program at its Lebanon, Pa., location early next year in the electric-maintenance trade. That site is part of the company's pharmaceutical packaging business unit and has different needs. Additionally, the average age of employees is 30, so the concern over looming retirements is less acute.

Barnes says introducing the apprenticeship program has been a challenge. "It's been more work than any of us thought it would be," even with the help of colleagues from Germany.

Nevertheless, "It is important. We can't afford to suffer the sudden loss of years of experience when [retirees] walk out the door," Barnes says.

"I view it not as a cost but as an investment," Barnes says.

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