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Advancing Apprenticeships for Improved Workforce Training

Better training can cement positive economic outlook.


With strong economic numbers, manufacturers today are increasingly positive about their business outlook. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) Manufacturing Outlook Index for 2018’s second quarter rose from 62.8 to 63.8, a new all-time high. This was the seventh straight quarter of positive survey results, the organization reports.


Digging further into the data, respondents expect full-time employment to increase 3.1 percent over the next 12 months, up from 2.9 percent in the previous release, also a new all-time high. More than 66 percent of survey respondents anticipate more hiring over the next year, including 27.4 percent planning employment growth of 5 percent or more. Just 3.3 percent see employment falling for their firms.


More than anything, this reflects an ever-tightening labor market for manufacturers. For the third straight NAM survey, the inability to attract and retain a quality workforce remains the top business challenge for manufacturers, cited by 76.7 percent of respondents. With robust predicted job growth and an encouraging economic outlook, finding and keeping the right talent is a critical mission more manufacturing companies are taking on themselves.


“It’s difficult to grow in manufacturing without the right people in place,” confirms Sean Althaus, training coordinator, Cox Manufacturing Company, in a recent article. It’s even more difficult without the right culture. For decades, Cox has progressively invested in technology for delivering precision metal components to aerospace and medical device customers. In addition, the company also invests in continuous improvement programs for all employees, both incoming and longstanding.


Determined to build a robust pipeline, Cox implemented a Registered Apprenticeship program, certified by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). To be DOL-certified, a company has to meet all requirements, create a curriculum and submit documentation for approval. Everything is audited by the DOL.


Cox’s apprentice program is a three-year package. Requirements include:


  • High school diploma or GED
  • Stable work history for past 10 years
  • Personal inventory survey completed
  • Math test passed
  • Background check passed
  • Drug test passed


Once each applicant’s experience and competency is assessed, the individual is placed at the appropriate level. Apprentices can achieve journeyman status in their fourth year.


Additional content called Related Training Instruction (RTI) is 144 hours a year for three years with 6,000 hours of on-the-job learning. Most of the RTI is completed via online training by Tooling U, a division of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME), with apprentices taking a minimum of eight classes per month to graduate on time.


“We also believe in teaching important life skills, so apprentices also receive 15 hours of personal finance training and 30 hours focused on physical wellness,” Althaus says.


“These classes are off the clock so productivity is not affected. Apprentices get paid one hour of overtime per week to cover this time. The program offers a rolling start, which helps speed up the process, and online classes can be completed at either the facility or at home.”


The biggest advantages for a manufacturing company implementing an apprenticeship program are related to culture and retention, says Jeanine Kunz, vice president, Tooling U. Companies like Cox see lower turnover and heightened employee engagement. The program also helps them reach younger employees.


There are other sources for apprenticeship models as well for manufacturers to consider, some even global in scope. The Industry Consortium for Advanced Technical Training (ICATT) with offices in Chicago was established by the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest. It is fully benchmarked on the German dual-education system that embraces company-specific knowledge and hands-on learning.


Calculating program costs and goals up front is essential. The ICATT Apprenticeship Program team works with employers to help establish program metrics and costs before getting any program off the ground. It recommends employers ask questions such as:


  • How much are we spending to attract and retain talent?
  • How effective are these efforts?
  • What is the typical cost for onboarding and fully training a new employee in the business areas affected by the skills gap?
  • How much is the skills gap causing in overtime costs?
  • What downstream effects of overtime have been experienced (turnover, morale issues, etc.)?
  • How much is the skills gap causing in quality issues, delays and other production issues?


Once full costs have been evaluated, making the case to senior leadership for an apprenticeship program becomes more transparent. Now companies can start setting expectations for outcomes of an apprenticeship program company-wide.


“At Cox, we’ve seen firsthand our apprenticeship program grow to a state-of-the-art model that can compete with other businesses and programs across the country,” says Sean Althaus. More and more, other manufacturers have the opportunity to build their own pipeline with similar apprenticeship programs to create engaged employees and a thriving company.


Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray Construction.

"We also believe in teaching important life skills, so apprentices also receive 15 hours of personal finance training and 30 hours focused on physical wellness."
Sean Althaus, Training Coordinator

Cox Manufacturing Company

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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