Last month, Autocam Medical Devices LLC graduated its fourth class of CNC machinist apprentices under a program that’s meant to lure young professionals to the skilled trades. John C. Kennedy, president and CEO of the contract manufacturer of medical devices, is using the program to grow his talent pipeline while the company is on the verge of a major expansion. Autocam Medical is in the process of building an additional 100,000-square-foot facility in Kentwood that will support 250 new jobs and roughly double the company’s workforce. Kennedy recently talked with MiBiz about building a talent pool amid an ongoing skilled trades shortage, as well as his leadership principles that helped guide the company through the COVID-19 pandemic.
How did Autocam Medical’s apprenticeship program get started?
I started the apprenticeship program at Autocam, which is now owned by NN Inc., probably 30 or more years ago. We had been using it extensively at that company to train machinists, although we had a lot fewer people and certainly it was a slower ramp-up. If you look at what’s happening in the world of skilled tradespeople, almost every year I think the average age of a typical skilled tradesperson gets older. The young people were just not looking at it. We increased our investment in this area when the companies were still together and then Autocam Medical became a spinoff of the automotive business. Certainly after the recession in 2011 or 2012, we started ramping up the apprenticeship program again as we saw our workforce aging and started to build capacity to try to deal with the retirements we’d see among skilled trades folks. That’s when I reignited it.
How many graduates do you have, and what does the program offer?
We have 57 people in West Michigan at some level in the apprenticeship program. We’ve been adding as many as 30 a year in two cohorts. The biggest barrier to growing the business is not getting new orders, but the ability to make the products, even pre-pandemic.
If you go back to the recession, manufacturing did not have a positive image — it was not the most attractive place for employees to come work. Being part of the AMP Lab, which we partnered with (Grand Rapids Community College) and Western (Michigan University), that is where most of our apprentices go. We have a prototype printer, multi-axis mill and a Swiss-style lathe that we use for prototyping parts for customers and in a training environment so we have some connection between the students and the work we’re doing. The idea is that it’s visible from the street. It’s just a neat way to make manufacturing real.
Our value proposition to a young person is that we are willing to pay for all of their education through engineering. We paid 100 percent of the tuition for the engineering degree and they worked while they were doing it — no debt, and they’re still pretty young.
What lessons do you have for other manufacturers trying to grow their talent pipeline?
I think you have to move to automate the hand work and train and educate for the knowledge work. We have to realize that it’s our duty to do what’s in the best interest of our entire workplace. Everyone we hire, we’re looking to bring their whole person to work. And although they may be doing hand work today, so to speak, we want their brains. We want the knowledge they bring to the workplace and the ideas they can bring to help make us better than we are.
What have been your guiding principles through the pandemic? Has it changed you as a leader?
We had a little different take on it than everyone else. We had to stay running and, quite frankly, we’re glad we did. We made some ventilator parts, for instance. Our team was able to rise to the challenge to make some stuff very quickly so some companies could ramp up higher. We’ve had to be at this the whole time, but we’ve done this with a very different view than most companies. We’ve had no remote work. My job as a leader was to make sure it was safe in the workplace. In my mind, the axiom we’ve operated on is: Protect the vulnerable, there are ways to operate safely, and that’s what we need.
Are you optimistic about the future of skilled trades, particularly in maintaining an adequately sized workforce?
I am — I worry about whether we can bring them on fast enough (to the company). We have a new plant going up in Kentwood. It’s 100,000 square feet of manufacturing and 250 people who are mostly all engineers and skilled tradespeople. That’s why we’re hiring as fast as we can right now in order to fill that plant. We have equipment coming in as early as May that we’re hoping to place down. We’re basically going to double in size from about 250 people to 500 over the next couple of years. The key question is how fast can we do that. We have the work — sales are growing 20 percent to 30 percent a year. It’s only being held back by the ability to deliver products to customers.