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March 1, 2013

On the Job

In-house training done right can be key to cost efficiency and growth.

Got turbine bladers? Can you recommend a good generator winder? For that matter, where can I find a journeyman machinist, with experience on “computer numerical control” (CNC) machines?

More and more, manufacturers of metal products are electing to train likely prospects themselves. Either in conjunction with local community colleges or on their own, employers are devising on-the-job training programs to bring new blood into their high-tech workplaces. Metals industry employers are scouring the market for skilled workers by placing classified ads, registering with employment agencies and sending recruiters to pitch their companies to promising high school and trade school graduates. Some are even sending representatives to junior high schools to talk up the benefits of working in manufacturing. And still, the skilled jobs with esoteric titles, some paying entry-level wage-and-benefits packages of as much as $70,000 a year, go begging. 

Competition for promising candidates is stiff in regions like central New Hampshire, where there are concentrations of advanced manufacturing plants producing metal products. “There are six or eight major players around here,” says Mark Bartram, plant manager for Aavid Thermalloy, which manufactures customized heat sinks (devices to draw heat out of electronic components) in Rochester, New Hampshire. “They’ve pretty much scooped up all the talent in the area.”

“The hiring problem is not going away,” adds Gary Groleau, corporate manager of labor relations for New Hampshire Ball Bearings, in nearby Laconia. “We need an orderly way to bring new people in.”

Bartram’s and Groleau’s companies, along with 20 others in New Hampshire, are providing technical advice and, in some cases, donating thousands of dollars worth of machinery to an ambitious program to prepare students for high-skilled, high-tech manufacturing jobs. Seven institutions within the Community College System of New Hampshire received a $19.9 million federal grant in March 2010, officially known as the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program (TAACCCT), to develop curricula and laboratories for advanced manufacturing training.

Other companies, not waiting for slow-moving federal or state bureaucracies to step in, are going it alone. Alstom Power Inc., an international energy servicing company with headquarters in France, was faced with an aging workforce and few local outside training resources. It set up its own apprenticeship program to recruit and train new prospects at its Richmond, Virginia, turbine plant.

“Economists were forecasting a market that would hit all-time highs,” says factory director Steve Schottelkotte. “We realized we needed to identify new talent and train it the Alstom way.”

The plant currently has 14 apprentices in various stages of training, working on 25-ton power rotors, learning how to operate and maintain computerized mills and lathes.

Like manufacturers in other fields, these metals producers have been in the throes of a technological revolution in the workplace since the early 1980s, says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

“What this means is that, in America, machines have taken over the repetitive tasks,” Carnevale says. “The non-repetitive tasks—quality control, customization, maintenance—are left to the worker.”

 

What Happened to the Middle Class?

For entry-level workers to have a shot at living a middle-class life in the United States, they must be armed with post-secondary school training, whether a diploma from a for-profit technical school, an associate’s degree from a community college or graduation from an apprenticeship program, Carnevale says.

Statistics tell the story. “In 1973, 65% of the American workforce had high school diplomas or less, and the majority of them were in the middle class,” he explains. “Fast forward to 2011, and the share of people in the middle class who had not gone beyond high school was down to 30%.” Most of the 30% are older workers with skills learned on the job under the old system, he adds.

This transformation is powered by a surge in value-added manufacturing that has changed the industry from cheap, mass-produced products to “high quality customization with constant innovation,” Carnevale says.

“It’s not just about making Bic pens anymore,” he says. “The pen you get at a hotel may basically be a Bic, but it’s customized.”

“It’s not your father’s or grandfather’s manufacturer anymore,” says Desiree Crossley, marketing coordinator for the New Hampshire community college program, talking generally about the new manufacturing workplace.

Alstom’s Richmond plant is a paradigm of advanced manufacturing. A large and open space the length of three football fields, the spotless plant has multiple workstations where workers tend to large, multi-wheeled rotors and their encasements, known as “stators.” Two cranes, like giant tables, moving back and forth on rails, haul heavy loads from workstation to work station, the largest carrying 275 tons at a time.

There are loading docks at the rear and, a few hundred yards behind the main building, a deep-water port on the James River, where barges can load and offload 40-ton pieces of power-generating equipment. Adjoining the main factory is the blade-production plant, which turns out about 10,000 rotor blades a year.

 

An Aging Workforce

Outside of the Alston factory director’s office is a wall of honor, displaying plaques with the names of journeymen who have worked at the plant for 30 or more years. There are currently 47 names on the wall, and 30 are still employed at the company, Schottelkotte says.

It's a mark of pride for the company not only that the plant can marshal so much savvy and experience at its tasks, but also that it speaks to the plant’s desirability as a place of employment for seasoned workers. But it’s also a source of concern.

“We’ve got an aging workforce,” Schottelkotte says. “That’s one of the reasons for the apprenticeship program. It takes quite a few years to become completely proficient at these jobs.”

Schottelkotte says Alstom had exhausted the conventional recruiting modes to find new workers. “We hired a lot of people, maybe 50% that didn’t pan out,” he says. “As a result, we thought it was time to do something more organic, to do it internally.”

 

Story of an Apprentice

One of Alstom’s Richmond apprentices is 26-year-old Eric Ford, from Lansing, Michigan, who, after getting a mechanical engineering degree from Michigan State more than two years ago, joined Alstom.

“I found myself spending a lot of time in the machine shop [in college], asking the machinists how they did certain projects. I loved it,” he remembers.

Ford is taking an intensive course to learn about working with smaller machines, known as “surplus equipment,” Schottelkotte explains. Ford has been learning how to take apart welding machines and lathes and reassemble them. Under the guidance of lead trainer Larry Grindle, who supervises the apprenticeship program, Ford has been drilled rigorously in safety measures as well as metrics and English measurements, since Alstom is a European company. Ford has also been working on the plant floor, having recently completed a six-month “rotation” on large, computer-driven machines.

“The most difficult part has been not wanting to make a mistake,” he says. “There are times when I just have to say, ‘Time out!’”

For a machinist, the hesitancy is understandable, say both Grindle and Schottelkotte. Making cuts on a $10-million rotor can involve intricate slicing into steel parts and paring pieces out to restore them, often backing around intact equipment that could easily be damaged.

“If you’re a blader and you make a mistake, you can take it out,” Grindle says. “But when a machinist makes a cut, it’s pretty final. You have to have a sense of responsibility. That’s one thing we look for.”

When Ford finishes the four-year apprenticeship program, he’ll be a Class C journeyman machinist; it will take more than another five years of experience to become a Class A journeyman, having the ability to lead teams in off-site projects.

Instilling confidence in trainees is another goal for trainers.

“We want our students to walk out and be absolutely fearless in terms of their ability to program and work these machines,” says Don Brough, project coordinator for the federal training grant at Lakes Region Community College in Laconia. “We want them to work the machines in terms of calibrating them and even doing some trouble-shooting. It’s not just pushing a button and walking away.”

 

Overcoming a Negative Notion

New Hampshire manufacturers, like others across the country, have had to overcome a widespread perception that manufacturing is a declining, generally undesirable segment of the economy. “During the downturn of the early 2000s, every night on the news people heard about how manufacturing is dead,” says Mark Bartram, plant manager at Aavid Thermalloy.

 

On an educational level, this meant a downgrading of machining courses at the New Hampshire community colleges. In fact, six of the seven community colleges now involved in the new training program had dropped their machining courses altogether, largely because of lack of student interest, Brough says. “The classes were not getting filled at Lakes Region, and the school decided it needed to move away from it,” he says.

With the new program raising awareness of manufacturers’ needs, all of them have reinstituted advanced machining classes. At the same time, says Crossley, “labs are being renovated and equipment added that is very similar or the same as that which can be found on actual production floors.”

The colleges are including industry-relevant math courses for would-be machinists. In addition, there’s a free, state-funded work-readiness program course, WorkReadyNH, that helps aspiring machinists to develop both “soft” skills, such as team-building, problem-solving and workplace safety, and “hard” skills, such as math and reading comprehension. Further, project managers and curriculum designers at each college are partnering with advanced manufacturers in their regions to custom design educational offerings that directly align with industry needs.

For students, the rewards can be great: Not only a solid job at the end of the program, but a well-paying one. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, the average weekly wage for manufacturing workers in New Hampshire was $1,216 in 2011, while the equivalent figure for all other industries was $916.

The TAACCCT program is just getting under way at most New Hampshire campuses, but program leaders expect to involve hundreds of students by 2014. Brough has set a goal of 449 students in the Lakes Region Community College program by mid-2014, whether engaged in short courses, certificate programs or associate degrees.

There are similar TAACCCT programs gestating in other states. The federal program began as part of the Obama administration’s economic stimulus effort, and states received $2 billion through the 2010 Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act.

Employers, like Bartram, say they are ready to get started. Machinists at Aavid Thermalloy receive client orders electronically, including models, which allow the machinists “to recreate exactly what [the client] is looking for,” he says.

Unfortunately, Bartram has the orders but often not the staff to fill them. “I have six major CNC positions that I’ve been unable to fill for the last six months,” he says. “It’s expensive for us, having open posts. The only way to address it is through overtime.”

 

Looking Inward for Resources

Almost all metals companies do some sort of in-house training. Olympic Steel, headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, processes and distributes steel products and systematically uses its experienced workers to upgrade the skills of new employees, says vice president for administration Richard Manson.

Case in point: The company has opened five new facilities in the past two years, including a temper mill in Gary, Indiana, and a warehouse and distribution center in Kansas City, Kansas. The company is banking on recovery, “and we want to be poised to grab more market share than our competitors,” Manson says.

Rather than start from scratch at the new facilities, the company brought in seasoned workers from its other centers to train new workers. “None of the new locations involved equipment that was unique,” says Manson. “It was the same sort of equipment we use in other places.”

“At Kansas City, we decided to take a machinist from our Iowa facility and make him the new foreman,” Manson says. “From our standpoint, he’s well-trained and he understands our culture so we’re all rolling in the same direction.”

The last time Olympic took special measures to train high-skilled workers was during a shortage of welders in 2008, Manson says. “We had a master welder train new employees,” he says. “Welders have a fairly regimented training program, which allows the employee to become a certified welder after having completed the requisite training program.”

Olympic doesn’t receive federal training grants, but it often takes advantage of state and local incentives for locating a facility in communities eager for new jobs. “Sometimes [the state or municipality will] pay for a trainer,” Manson says.

As for the mechanical skills that Olympic looks for in job applicants, Manson repeats a familiar mantra: “It’s all about the computer.” Every step of the steel distribution and steel processing involves a computer interface, Manson says, “from the moment the steel is taken off the truck, weighed, tagged and entered into the system, to the time it’s being received into the facility. Then you have to put it somewhere in a location so that you’re not wandering around looking for it. At the temper mill, all the adjustments are made through a computer screen. Same with lasers [which cut the steel].”

The current face of metals and manufacturing is ushering in a new era of high-tech training, as well. Companies that wait for local schools and government assistance to ramp up the training for the people they need will most likely just keep wondering where they are going to get the right people to thrive and grow.


Edmund Newton is a Washington, D.C.-based writer, formerly of the L.A. TimesNewsday and the New York Post, as well as the former managing editor of New Times-Broward Palm Beach. He has written for, among others, The New York TimesTimePeopleDaily News Sunday MagazineBlack Enterprise, the Ladies Home JournalEssence and Audubon.