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Sunday, 16 February 2014 22:21

$10M state program helps companies fund training programs for skilled trades

Written by  Joe Boomgaard and Jane C. Simons
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As companies across Michigan are locked in an intense search for talent, one new state program aims to make it easier for companies to hire, train and retain skilled workers.

Via the new $10 million Skilled Trades Training Fund, Michigan companies in manufacturing, construction and skilled service industries can access state funds to help with the creation of classroom-based training programs, on-the-job training and other customized programs that lead to full-time employment.

To date, the state awarded grants from the fund to dozens of Michigan employers.

In Grand Rapids, metal stamper Pridgeon & Clay Inc. plans to hire 100 new employees by May 31 thanks in part to a $153,000 grant for on-the-job training.

But the grant is far from a handout, sources told MiBiz. That’s because companies must retain eligible workers to receive the funding for the worker training programs. The reimbursement is based on a sliding scale depending on whether the employee has hit the 60-day, 90-day or 180-day targets.

Pridgeon & Clay worked through Michigan Works! of Kent and Allegan Counties for the grant.

Since the grant dollars are only awarded if a worker stays on with the company, firms are challenged to ensure their programs are providing the right kinds of training, said Gabrielle Calkins, training and development manager at Pridgeon & Clay.

“We want to raise our standards moving forward,” she said.

Under the program, eligible new hires at Pridgeon & Clay attend three half-day training sessions and an additional half-day networking session in their first week of employment, Calkins said. That’s followed up with technical training on equipment, the company’s culture, safety protocols, benefits, quality assurance programs and its continuous improvement philosophy. In total, the new employees receive four weeks of “hands-on, on-the-job training,” she said.

“They get the whole picture,” Calkins said. Over time, the automotive supplier has found that the so-called “initial onboarding” process plays a crucial role in employee retention. “They see that they’re going to be an active employee — they’re not just pushing a button.”

Given the competitive nature of the industry, Pridgeon & Clay has little room for error when it comes to hiring and can ill afford to have its onboarding process fail to properly train new employees, she said.

“It’s really expensive to bring someone on, onboard them and get them training and then lose them,” Calkins said. “The state is challenging these (grant) recipients to invest up-front.”

The $10 million Skilled Trades Training Fund is administered by the Michigan Strategic Fund via the Workforce Development Agency and its partners, including Michigan Works! agencies, the Michigan Economic Development Corp., local economic development organizations and community colleges.

To participate in the program, companies must commit to hiring trainees who’ve successfully completed classroom training or to retaining employees after they’ve wrapped up their on-the-job or incumbent worker training.

Companies are eligible for reimbursement of up to $1,500 for employees who go through the training, get hired and are retained for at least six months. Up to $3,000 is available for companies with an apprenticeship program.

The Skilled Trades Training Fund was created for the state’s 2014 fiscal year. As of the end of last month, the state committed more than $8.2 million to 177 companies that will be providing almost $42 million in matching funds for the program. The program should result in more than 11,900 people receiving training and the creation of more than 1,350 jobs, according figures from the Workforce Development Agency.

Gov. Rick Snyder has recommended that the program be continued at the same funding level for the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years.

While the funding for Pridgeon & Clay focused on its on-the-job training program, other companies in the region are using the funds to improve the skills of incumbent workers and new hires in in-demand jobs.

Firstronic LLC used $289,550 from the Skilled Trades Training Fund to develop an in-house training program as the company ramps up its hiring in West Michigan. In September, Firstronic announced it planned to add about 110 new employees to accommodate the expansion of its electronic components manufacturing as it looked to grow and further diversify into the medical device sector.

Because most electronics manufacturing has shifted overseas in recent years, the company realized that it would need to provide comprehensive training to its new hires, said CEO John Sammut.

“There’s a big void in the market for electronics assembly,” Sammut said. “More of the OEMs in electronics (want their products) to be assembled in North America, but there’s a lack of capability and capacity. We’re competing with offshore companies and being competitive with a high degree of automation, but to do so, we need a highly trained workforce.”

The grant funding allowed the company to have a few of its existing experienced employees become industry-certified trainers for the new employees, Sammut said. Firstronic even built an in-house training lab set up like a classroom with workbenches, he said. Employees get instruction on how to operate the company’s complex equipment as well as in inspecting parts for quality.

“We’re able to give them book knowledge and hands-on experience so they can go from the classroom to the production floor,” Sammut said. “We want to create an environment where every employee is a quality inspector on the floor. … We take people who come right in the door, with no experience in manufacturing or electronics, and put them through the equivalent of an apprenticeship.”

For Three Rivers-based X-L Machine Company Inc., a $10,000 award funded training for four employees in advanced manufacturing processes, said Dawn Griffith, the company’s finance and human resources manager. Founded in 1976, the 50-person X-L Machine began as a quality, prototyping and machining center and developed into a large-capacity production facility that continues to expand with additions of permanent tooling and precision production equipment.

“We were very excited because there is no cost to us for the actual training,” Griffith said. “The classes are being taught by professors who have a knowledge of the skills required.”

Griffith said she reached out to officials with Kalamazoo Valley Community College who had put together a group interested in connecting with local machining companies so they could work together to apply for the STTF grant. Kalamazoo-St. Joseph Michigan Works! administered the grant.

“KVCC was trying to determine what type of training they could offer and local manufacturers were talking about what they needed training in,” Griffith said.

The X-L employees received training in Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machining that uses a computer to convert a design produced by Computer Aided Design software (CAD) into numbers. The numbers can be considered to be the coordinates of a graph and they control the movement of the machining equipment. In addition, training also was provided in computer-aided manufacturing for turning and milling machines.

Some service-sector organizations — including health care providers Spectrum Health and Porter Hills Retirement Community Services — also received training funds, but most of the grants have gone to manufacturers, according to the state.

“It’s definitely an excellent program at the right place and time for Michigan,” said Sammut of Firstronic. “People are pleasantly surprised to see us bring manufacturing back because they thought Michigan would never be a formidable competitor in manufacturing again. Not only are we winning contracts, we now export the majority of our products to low-cost regions.”

Read 5350 times Last modified on Sunday, 16 February 2014 18:54

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