In an era when manufacturing companies struggle to find engineering talent, one state-supported program offers a partial solution by putting the skills of retired professionals to work.
In existence since the mid-1990s, the Michigan Retired Engineer Technical Assistance Program (RETAP) has leveraged the skills of retired engineers to provide hands-on analysis and feedback to small and midsize manufacturers — as well as schools and medical facilities — in implementing cost-saving measures and environmental initiatives.
The program provides free, confidential, non-regulatory consultations to any company in the state, as long as it has fewer than 500 employees.
RETAP has about 50 contractors around Michigan.
“I like to advertise that we have over 2,100 years of experience available to help people at no cost,” said Dick Savage, the executive director of Michigan Retired Engineer Technical Assistance Foundation.
Currently, the program is managed by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and uses independent contractors — all of them retired engineers — for its assessments. As a condition of its backing, the state requires that the assessors be former engineers or scientists with years of experience.
The engineers’ assessments largely consist of looking at energy use, water conservation and pollution prevention at companies around the state. The average potential savings for a RETAP assessment is around $40,000, Savage said.
That analysis proved beneficial for Model Coverall Service Inc. of Grand Rapids, said company President Jon Subar. Model Coverall worked with RETAP on a number of sustainability efforts, including improving the cleanliness of the company’s wastewater and outlining steps to decrease the company’s utility costs, Subar said.
“They brought a unique combination of expertise in operational engineering, chemical engineering, as well as years of general business experience in management and decision making,” Subar said in an email to MiBiz. “(The RETAP contractors) are real professionals that have our best interest at heart and are proud to share their high level of knowledge and experience with us.”
Subar’s sentiments about cost-cutting and sustainable business initiatives speak to the heart of the RETAP program. The reaction is one Savage said he hears quite often from clients.
“The primary driving force for most of these companies is the cost savings,” Savage said of clients’ sustainability efforts. “They want to be green, but there is a certain cost that goes with that that especially the small businesses may not be able to afford to do everything (needed to be sustainable).”
The RETAP assessments provide companies with written documentation of cost-saving and sustainability measures, but it’s up to the companies to figure out how to implement those recommendations, Savage said. Moreover, the recommendations that come out of the assessments might not be feasible for every business to implement, he said.
Clients partially or fully enact 75 percent to 80 percent of the recommendations within two years, and in other cases, include them in long-term planning, Savage said.
This was the case for Model Coverall, Subar said. The uniform, mat, towel and linens services company implemented many of RETAP’s recommendations but passed on those it deemed too expensive or that lacked the desired return on investment.
In its current operating structure, RETAP can perform approximately 125 examinations per year, Savage said. In 2010, the program completed 134 assessments, a pace fueled by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding that allowed for inspections of many government facilities in the state. Assessment volume dropped to 89 in 2011 largely because of the drop off in projects at government facilities, Savage said.
Figures for 2012 and last year were not available.
“Effectively, we can do about 10 (inspections) per month and get the reports out with the staffing we have,” he said, noting that RETAP spreads out its assessment schedule and maintains a waiting list.
As a governmental program that has been shuffled between a handful of departments during its lifespan, RETAP has felt its share of budget constraints and changing political headwinds, Savage said.
“There is always a political element to it (because) there are limited funds available and there is always someone looking to get it,” Savage said. “But we have some pretty good support through the director level in the DEQ.”
While the engineers’ assessments are confidential, RETAP often asks clients for letters of recommendation to show the program’s value to legislators, who are predominantly responsible for its funding.
The program received a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in October to provide new tools for the engineers to learn about toxic and hazardous waste reduction, Savage said.
RETAP is also currently branching out and providing mentorship services for engineering and manufacturing students at Western Michigan University. Through a grant from the DEQ, the new program supports interns mainly in the Kalamazoo area, said David Meade, a professor of manufacturing engineering at WMU. The first intern started last summer and was focused on work at Landscape Forms Inc. in Kalamazoo, a designer and manufacturer of outdoor furniture.
RETAP will help provide mentoring services for the student interns, Meade said.
“(RETAP) is a great program for providing technical expertise,” Meade said.
Andy Such, director of environmental and regulatory policy at the Michigan Manufacturers Association (MMA), which has a number of members who have used RETAP, agreed with Meade. He said it’s important for retired engineers to share their knowledge with the upcoming generations.
“Anytime a young manufacturer can sit down with someone (of experience), it’s valuable time,” Such said.
Editor’s note: This story has been changed from its original version. The organization Dick Savage directs is the Michigan Retired Engineer Technical Assistance Foundation, which oversees the Michigan Retired Engineer Technical Assistance Program.