The Kind of Training We Need In Manufacturing

April 30, 2015
Manufacturers must provide apprenticeship training in order to eliminate the skilled workforce shortage.

I've read many articles about the problem of America's “skilled worker shortage" and why we need advanced training; but most don’t define or explain what they mean by "advanced training."

I contend that the type of advanced training program we need for manufacturing is an apprentice program, which trains people to become journeymen, like the training programs in Germany and Switzerland.

"Journeyman" is a good term to define a person with the multiple skills needed to be “highly skilled” in any field of manufacturing, whether it is as a pipe fitter, machinist, electrician, assembler or maintenance worker.

The key to this type of training is that the manufacturer must make the investment in a program that pays the workers while they are in training and provides a full–time job upon graduation.

The key to this type of training is that the manufacturer must make the investment in a program that pays the workers while they are in training and provides a full-time job upon graduation.

After many years of offering training through workforce boards, the government has finally addressed the issue of apprentice skills and is now offering to support apprentice programs through the U.S. Department of Labor.

In 2014, Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez said:

“President Obama challenged us to double the number of apprenticeships in the U.S. over the next five years. I like to call it the other 'four-year degree.'

"Registered Apprenticeships combine high standards, rigorous instruction and hands-on experience—all while earning good pay, getting an industry-recognized credential and avoiding crushing student loan debt. In fact, the average starting salary of an apprenticeship graduate is $50,000. And many graduates can transfer the skills they learned on the job into college credit—meaning they can still complete an associate or bachelor’s degree, but at far less cost. It’s a win-win all around.”

In December of 2014, the Department of Labor announced a $100 million grant competition to grow the number of apprenticeships offered in the U.S.—the largest-ever such federal investment. This was a pleasant surprise to me. After many efforts at promoting general training via legislation like the Workforce Investment Act, the government is finally focusing on the kind of high skill training that will really help manufacturing grow.

Four Apprenticeship Programs that Work

We’ve seen a triple-digit return on investment from our apprentice graduates even during difficult economic conditions."

— Donald E. Oberg, founder, Oberg Industries,

  1. Blum Inc.,

    ... which employees 350 people at its plant in Stanley, N.C., makes functional hardware for kitchen cabinets and commercial case goods. Its need for highly skilled workers becomes apparent when you enter its mostly automated 450,000-square-foot factory. The employees are expected to operate, maintain, repair and troubleshoot all the equipment. So the company created a program called "Apprenticeship 2000" to provide the necessary training.

    Apprenticeship 2000 provides 8,000 hours of both classroom and on-the-job training. Apprentices are paid during their training and are guaranteed a job after graduation. They also receive an associate degree in manufacturing technology and a journeyman certificate from the North Carolina Department of Labor.

    The approximate investment by the company for each apprentice exceeds $100,000, which would probably make the large publicly held corporations choke.

  2. Penn United Technologies,

    ... a mid-size manufacturer located in Western Pennsylvania, specializes in precision metal manufacturing. Jim Ferguson, director of training, explains that in 1997 the company sent employees to vocational technology centers for most of their training, but the centers did not cover all of the skills needed for Penn's type of manufacturing. The company decided that they would invest in its own training, which they call the Learning Institute for the Growth of High Technology (LIGHT).

    The institute is a 17,000 square-foot manufacturing training center located on the Penn's main campus. Inside are three classrooms and four labs equipped with state-of-the-art manufacturing machinery and equipment. Light’s mission is to assess, design and develop customized manufacturing training programs to meet the needs of its customers and employees. The institute offers short-term training, long-term apprentice programs, tuition reimbursement for college courses, as well as customized training.

    The long-term training for employees includes four apprenticeship programs approved by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Apprenticeship Training (BAT). The four training programs are: Toolmaker (5 years), Precision Machinist (4 years), Press Technician (3 years), and Quality Assurance Technician (3 years).

    Penn's employee training also includes tuition reimbursement to foster the professional development of its employees through their successful completion of studies in higher education, such as accounting, engineering, and business management, and in the pursuit of 2- and 4-year degrees.

    Penn United’s Light Training Center is a great model for all manufacturers who need the advanced skills of real journeyman. The company recognizes that to produce world-class products, they must offer world class training.

  3. Oberg Industries

    ... of Freeport, Penn., is a diversified manufacturer specializing in the production of precision machined or stamped metal components and precision tooling. Donald E. Oberg, founder of Oberg Industries, knew the importance of training his employees so they have the skills and knowledge necessary for his company to make the complex metal components his customers need. So he launched an employee training program soon after starting his company in 1948, which led to an apprenticeship program that was formally registered in 1971. Oberg is proud to say the company has successfully trained and equipped nearly 1,000 employees to succeed in the metal working jobs of today and the emerging industries of tomorrow.

    The rationale behind why they believe in apprenticeship speaks volumes about why apprenticeship training is needed in most US plants. It goes like this:

    • Ensures that all employees will have the job competency skills the company needs to be successful today and tomorrow.

    • Instills corporate values and culture in new employees.

    • Provides each apprentice with the ability to earn family-sustaining incomes and learn a skill at the same time.

    • Establishes a culture of continuous learning for incumbent workers.

    • Contributes to the overall success of the organization by enhancing its reputation, strengthening the brand, and setting it apart from the competition as a world leader in advanced manufacturing.

    In addition, graduates of the program have become much more than good production workers. Many have become company executives, sales managers, engineers, quality managers, estimators, project managers, production supervisors, or have chosen a variety of other career paths. More than 20 have even started their own companies.

    “We will always maintain our apprenticeship program because we value our highly engaged, creative, and innovative people, Oberg says. "We’ve seen a triple-digit return on investment from our apprentice graduates even during difficult economic conditions."

What U.S. Manufacturers Must Do to Eliminate the Skilled Worker Shortage

American Manufacturers have a bad image because of their actions since the year 2000. They have a reputation for closing plants, outsourcing jobs, busting unions, driving down labor costs, and other activities that convey job insecurity. A recent poll showed that 70% of parents would not advise their kids to go into manufacturing. In my opinion to turn around this negative image and recruit people they are going to have to do the following:

  1. Make a compact with new workers who want to be trained, offering job security and long-term employment.

  2. Emphasize high-skill apprentice training with a guaranteed job upon completion.

  3. Promote high-skill training as a step toward a manufacturing career, not just a job.

  4. Pay apprentices a wage during training and guarantee raises for skills obtained, along with a journeyman certification that demonstrates transferable skills.

  5. Invest in this apprenticeship training up to as much as 3% of sales, as has been the suggested by several studies.

  6. Change ROI formulas to include the long-term training that requires hundreds or thousands of hours.

  7. Sponsor tuition reimbursement for any applicable college course.

We know what the problem is and know the solution, but American corporations have been reluctant to invest in the training they need. Germany now leads the world in manufactured goods exports, and manufacturing is 15% of their economy. If the U.S. had as many apprentices on a per capita basis as Germany, we would have 7 million apprentices.

There is no mystery in what U.S. manufacturers need to do to regain manufacturing dominance. It is time to quit researching the problem and make the required investment.

About the Author

Michael Collins | President

Michael P. Collins is President of MPC Management, a consulting company that focuses exclusively on the problems and challenges of small and midsize manufacturers (SMMs) of industrial products and services. His consulting clients range from small family-owned machine shops to large machinery manufacturers.He has worked with a wide variety of job shops including foundries, machine shops and fabrication shops on a wide variety of management, marketing and manufacturing issues. He is the author of "Saving American Manufacturing" published by Vantage Press in Chicago. The companion handbook "The Growth Planning Handbook" for small and midsize manufacturers (SMMs) which was published by NIST MEP's MEP University. 

Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of IndustryWeek, create an account today!