Manufacturers and manufacturing educators shared their biggest challenges and everyday difficulties in creating and sustaining the gamut of apprenticeships, internships, curriculum programs, and credentialing initiatives at a workforce development summit last week held by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International (FMA). They also used the meeting to brainstorm competency-based learning systems designed to speed the pace of readying new manufacturing employees.
The persistent problems afflicting apprenticeships and internships cited at the FMA T.E.A.M. Summit, held at Anoka Technical College, in Anoka, Minn., ranged from entrants having poor fundamental math and so-called soft skills, to lack of time and resources, to the struggle to get participants to stay on and finish. Meanwhile, educators said they are having trouble producing the workforce that fits the needs of today’s fast-moving manufacturing businesses because of a lack of involvement from the private sector in curriculum design and classroom instruction.
Although some 35 FMA meeting attendees universally acknowledged that there is a pressing need for a closely integrated combination of formal learning and on-the-job training, time constraints and real-world demands are forcing heavy compromises between education and meeting employers’ immediate demands.
Conference participants spoke of some manufacturers pulling students and interns away from programs with full-time job offers because they are desperate for capable machine operators who can help them meet daily orders and quotas. It is that lure of cash and instant gratification that cause students to “job out” of education, said Curtis Nielsen, program director at Ogden-Weber Applied Technical College, in Ogden, Utah. “There is too much focus on short-term needs and a lack of time. It’s always short term versus long term.”
That desperation to find able bodies also poses risks to companies that spend the time and effort to provide on-the-job development but only to see high-performers poached away. Andree Begneaud, employee relations director and co-owner of Begneaud Manufacturing Inc., a 55-employee precision sheet metal fabricator in Lafayette, La., has to contend with large oil field companies that can offer higher starting pay and benefits. “I train them, and they take them,” she bemoaned.
In some cases, young program participants experience sudden life changes and leave – especially those from underprivileged backgrounds. “Some kids have a lot of baggage and their situations change,” Begneaud said. She was forced to shut down an advanced manufacturing apprenticeship program seven years ago because of limited success and now runs a welding internship program for high schoolers and college students.
Even when program participants wanted to be onboard, they lacked even basic skills, Begneaud said. “We had to teach them how to read at a ninth-grade level,” she said. “It was a big challenge.”
The shortage of well-qualified participants has made manufacturers more willing to take on inexperienced candidates. Some companies, such as DeWys Manufacturing, a machine shop and metal fabricator in Marne, Mich., are reaching down into the high school level for its internship prospects, looking to get hopefuls engaged in manufacturing earlier. Laura Elsner, DeWys’ workforce development manager, said, “This gives us the ability to mold them.”
Recruiting earlier in schools, however, also causes drawbacks because it means a longer-term investment in each candidate’s training. “They are very young and inexperienced, and the hours can be too much for them,” Elsner admitted. “They also need help with communication skills. It takes energy and resources from the current team.”
That problem is compounded when supervisors aren’t properly trained in being mentors. Participants then become a burden on the shop floor, both Elsner and Begneaud said. Oftentimes, employees selected as trainers are “good at doing but not at explaining how and why,” said another manufacturer.
Competency-Based Learning Models Get Closer Look
The urgency to produce rightly skilled graduates and workers in welding, machining, and other metalworking professions has prompted discussion of changes from time-based to competency-based education programs, apprenticeships, and training systems, which may accelerate the pace with which highly talented proteges can graduate, get credentialed, and start working for employers. Traditional time-based approaches have required at least 2,000 on-the-job training (OJT) hours out of every single apprentice.
“You can be the best machining apprentice after 1,000 hours, but you still have to complete the remaining hours,” said Richard Davy, apprenticeship field representative at the Minnesota Department of Labor & Industry. This was one of the reasons why the federal government reformed the National Apprenticeship Act in late 2008 to include more flexible competency-based apprenticeships that do not require OJT completion, and hybrid, blended approaches that require fewer OJT hours with formal classroom or online instruction. These programs are designed to enable job readiness in as fast as 18 months.
The Minnesota agency, which regulates all apprenticeships in the state, has made an initiative to introduce more competency-based programs, and has partnered with the National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS) to measure the performance of apprentices. “If a company wants to start a competency-based apprenticeship, we ask, ‘What are your industry performance standards?’” said Davy, who added that the state agency helps employers with their program design and approval process.
Brent Weil, senior vice president for education and workforce at the Washington, D.C.-based Manufacturing Institute, which is affiliated with the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), said it is also time for the U.S. to establish a standardized credentialing system. He traveled to Anoka to present a national manufacturing competency development and assessment model at the FMA meeting.
The Manufacturing Institute oversees the NAM-endorsed Skills Certification System for 14 areas, including welding, fabrication, and machining. Certifications are “stackable,” meaning that they are built upon a foundation of basic academic and workplace requirements and followed by occupation-specific and specialized skills. Students and workers earn portable and industry-validated credentials that can be carried from state to state and are universally recognized by manufacturing employers.
The system is supported by a variety of manufacturing industry trade groups, including NIMS and the American Welding Society (AWS), and is being aimed at employers as well as education institutions. But it is also designed to bring in those who have had noncredit occupational education and training, validating their abilities and taking some of the guesswork out of their hiring for employers. “It doesn’t matter where and how their training occurred because we need people now,” Weil said.
There is also an accelerated version of the skills certification system called Right Skills Now. In 24 months, students in this fast-track education pathway earn college credit toward a degree from classroom instruction, hands-on experience from an internship, a National Career Readiness Certificate, and one of four NIMS certifications related to CNC machining.
Weil also envisions a national network of Manufacturing Institute-certified schools that offer two-year formal manufacturing education degrees but also allow students to earn nationally recognized credentials in competency-based apprenticeships along the way. “I want to push this idea locally and start pockets of activity,” he said.
But the onus seems to be on the private sector and industry to spur adoption of a national system. “Manufacturers have to get involved,” Weil stressed. “If companies start to recognize the credentials in their hiring, [educators and other stakeholders] will take note.”
“National standards are a great idea,” said Nielsen of Ogden-Weber Applied Technical College (OWATC). “Employers have to drive the value of certification and also define the competencies. The needs of apprenticeships also need to be defined by the employer.”
At OWATC, Nielsen runs one of the country’s most radical education and hands-on training programs for entry-level technical jobs. It operates on weekly open enrollment, where students can begin and leave anytime and pay just for the hours they attend. In the flexibly scheduled, self-paced system, students earn a certificate of completion; industry certifications from FMA, AWS, NIMS, and others; and college credits toward an associate degree in applied technology at Weber State University (WSU).
“It’s not semester based, so the program is extremely flexible, and it’s all competency based,” Nielsen said. “You show the ability, you get the credit. There are no grades, and you get a certificate of completion.”
The OWATC’s internship programs are similarly unorthodox. Though not time-based formally, they average 810 hours of instruction at the school and 8,000 hours of OJT at a participating employer. The programs are tailored to individual manufacturers. Those who complete the programs earn 40 semester credits toward a degree at WSU.
One of those programs occurs at Ogden-based Williams International, which makes gas turbine engines for the military and general aviation markets and where a major chunk of the workforce is made up of machinists. Up to six interns at a time work between 20 and 40 hours per week, earning up to three levels of machinist certification. Williams pays for their tuition at OWATC and also gives a $1/hr raise per machinist level certification earned.
While the program averages 14 months, students are eligible for hire following Machinist Level I certification after about six months, but they must repay their aid if they decline a full-time job offer or drop out. Those who take on employment at Williams have their expenses forgiven after a year on the job. Williams’ program began in fall 2012 and has produced two full-time machinists, and in March the company took on three more interns.
The OWATC sees about 10,000 students annually and provides technical training in 50 vocational areas, and covers 78 percent of the jobs in the region that do not require four-year degrees. Those who’ve completed their studies at OWATC are working at 400 companies in the region. “We get questions about our competency-based model, but it has worked,” Nielsen said. “We’re trying to look at different ways of educating.”
Dennis Ringgenberg, assistant professor of welding at Kirkwood Community College, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is one educator who sees the benefits of competency-based learning. “I will explore more competency-based apprenticeship opportunities and put together new program ideas to serve our manufacturers.”