Over the last few years, manufacturers have developed extensive in-house training programs in a move to combat skilled worker shortages.
While many companies seek partnerships or outside experts for the training, others have taken the responsibility to invest in their own futures by building up internal educational capacity.
Marne-based DeWys Manufacturing Inc. offers potential hires a 12-week paid training course, similar to a college semester. The program, dubbed “DeWys University,” is built around a curriculum catering to multiple department needs, such as laser cutting, press break, welding, general machines, powder coat and assembly.
Now in year five, the program is changing, but in a “good way,” said Jon DeWys, president of DeWys Manufacturing, a metal fabrication company with 175 employees.
“What we have been doing is refining those (curriculums),” DeWys told MiBiz. “Our business was trying to make things better. You’re always trying to prove your quality and to (deliver) what our customers want. What we are finding with DeWys University is we have to apply that continuous improvement activity.”
For example, the powder coating curriculum explores how parts are hung on lines in terms of the spacing and density, and how paint is then applied.
“What we are doing is really refining those individual tasks and trying to do a better job of that,” he said. “Early on, we kind of grouped them on it, and what we found out is our parts are so complex and diverse that one customer may want their parts packaged and boxed one way (and) another customer may want it a totally different way.”
The company is now transitioning into using visual electronic boards where processes may have been written down during training in the past.
“We’re becoming much more visual electronically so they can actually see how they have to process that individual part,” DeWys said.
More than 100 employees on the shop floor at DeWys have participated in the in-house training. Although it’s not a degree-granting institution sanctioned by the state, the program’s “graduates” receive certificates for passing each level of training.
As an employee progresses through the levels, their classroom work is replaced with more hands-on work.
But the focus is much broader than passing each level, according to DeWys.
“You have to prove to us you can do it not once but on an ongoing basis,” he said.
According to a study from Tooling U-SME, a Cleveland, Ohio-based nonprofit educational technology and blended learning organization, nearly nine out of 10 manufacturers are having difficulty finding skilled workers.
Through the in-house training at DeWys Manufacturing, the company hopes to reverse that trend.
“Unemployment, especially in manufacturing, is very low, in the 2 to 3 percent (range),” DeWys said. “You have to have a very robust training program in order to on-board people. So we need to be clever, we need to be innovative to get these people on-boarded into our training system as fast as we can.”
The program “was the right thing to do” even if, on paper, it didn’t make financial sense, DeWys said, noting that the program has clear outcomes in developing people, their skill sets and their proficiencies.
“It’s hard to put a number to that,” he said.
SHARING ‘KNOWLEDGE’ AT STEELCASE
Grand Rapids-based office furniture maker Steelcase Inc. (NYSE: SCS) has a skilled trades apprenticeship program that educates employees who want to grow into roles as machine repair technicians, electricians and tool and die makers. The company’s program also focuses on “traditionally difficult job positions to fill from outside of the organization,” said Katie Woodruff, the manager of corporate communications and public relations at Steelcase.
“It provides an opportunity for individuals who are very ‘hands-on’ and seek to develop advanced skills needed to troubleshoot and repair complex machinery and tooling,” Woodruff said in an email with MiBiz.
While Steelcase, like many companies, stopped its apprenticeship programs during the 2000s, it relaunched them out of necessity as the economy improved.
“There was a significant shortage of skilled trades workers — many tradespeople were considering retirement with no available pipeline of talent to take on these roles,” Woodruff said.
According to Woodruff, Steelcase now has a four-year program that requires a minimum of 8,000 hours of on-the-job training with the company’s skilled trades workers, in addition to academic and overall performance requirements.
The program offers apprenticeships for electricians, machine repair, tool and die and boiler operators, and each apprentice is reviewed or rated every six months by leadership or mentors.
“This program provides the specific skills we are looking for while allowing our tradespeople to share their knowledge with others before retiring,” Woodruff said. “We have partnered with (Grand Rapids Community College) who provides an educational component, while our current tradespeople provide the on-the-job training. … We have had a mix of internal and external candidates join our apprentice program, which has proven to be a great balance.”
In Grand Rapids, Steelcase currently has 15 active apprentices, with five apprentices at its Athens, Ala. facility, which recently started a program, Woodruff said.
FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE
Deb Lyzenga, regional director of Grand Rapids-based West Michigan Works!, said companies have to find the right balance with their training.
For example, Lyzenga said some companies have too much of a “heavy load” and cannot do training internally.
“You also have to keep in mind employers are producing,” Lyzenga said. “If you do internal training and develop curriculum as well, that’s a heavy load, particularly for small- to medium-size employers.”
Holland-based Genzink Steel Supply and Welding Co. has been offering in-house training for about a decade, said Human Resources Manager Kara Wiersma. She said it’s essential to “up-train our workforce” in areas such as metrology, welding procedures and basic blueprinting to meet customer requirements.
“Investing in training provides transferable advanced skills to our current employees, paving the way for the next generation,” she added.
Lyzenga recognizes the need for businesses to train internally, yet she said there “really needs to be an expert” to bring workers up to speed and stay current with technology in newer pieces of equipment.
“I think all companies do a hybrid — train the trainer — and we have to rely on the experts,” she said. “A lot of the equipment they use in manufacturing plants, when they purchase it, it doesn’t come with training. That comes separately.”