Employment trends are positive, which is promising for the nation—but challenging for manufacturers seeking skilled labor. While larger companies are successfully building a pipeline of workers through apprenticeship programs, this approach is tougher for small and mid-sized companies with limited resources.
As a non-profit economic development organization in Cleveland, OH, WIRE-Net (Westside Industrial Retention & Expansion Network) has been supporting local manufacturers since the late ‘80s. Over the years, we had heard from many manufacturers who were ready to invest in apprenticeship programs to grow their talent base. The problem was that they did not have the infrastructure—time and expertise—to implement them.
To address this, WIRE-Net created an apprenticeship program for a consortium of smaller companies called the Northeast Ohio Manufacturing Apprenticeship Consortium (NOMAC). This is a plug-and-play approach where local manufacturers rely on WIRE-Net to handle the administration and logistics of establishing an apprenticeship program, removing a major barrier to implementation. WIRE-Net also negotiates with the educational providers on behalf of the consortium, and provides expert structured on-the-job training for the apprentice mentors at each company.
To set the stage, here is a snapshot of the difficult employment situation in Cleveland, which mirrors much of the country.
With the average age of manufacturing employees around 50, there is an important need for manufacturers to develop talent. The predicted “Silver Tsunami” has started. Baby boomers are retiring and the up-and-coming millennials approach careers differently. Due to misconceptions about the industry, many have not considered the advantages of working in manufacturing.
An updated report on workforce supply/demand alignment in Northeast Ohio notes that slightly more than half (54%) of available adults have the required skill level for in-demand jobs. Coupled with a low unemployment rate (4.4%), this means there are fewer qualified candidates. Throw in evolving technology, with changing skills requirements, and the skills gap is a gaping hole.
This spring, we gathered 60 manufacturers, educators and others in a room for four hours to talk about key national and regional manufacturing trends to determine our collective priorities moving forward. Workforce development and talent management ranked #1 and #2, respectively, as the most pressing issues. Improving business operations ranked #3, followed by the image of manufacturing at #4. It’s clear that manufacturers face a dire workforce situation and many don’t know what to do about it. As the consortium members realized a year ago, companies need to stop waiting for schools and government to come up with a solution. Now is the time for manufacturers themselves to invest in people by articulating and driving training, working in partnership with the public sector. Apprenticeships are a top priority for us.
Building the Consortium
To start the process, WIRE-Net recently launched the first of three apprentice programs: Maintenance Mechanic; CNC Machinist; and Certified Production Technician. While the first Maintenance Mechanic apprenticeship program is a traditional time-based model, the others will be competency-based programs, designed to be completed in 3–3.5 years.
The advantage of competency-based apprenticeships is that they give company sponsors much greater confidence in what apprentices are learning and, more importantly, how well they can perform.
The first six individuals to enter the program at two local manufacturing facilities are incumbent employees. The program will later expand to include new employees, with many apprentice candidates drawn from new state Recognized Pre-Apprenticeship programs among regional career-tech high schools. The program combines on-the-job training, customizable and implemented by each company, along with local community college classes and online courses from Tooling U-SME.
The NOMAC talent development solution came together as a way for multiple companies to support company-sponsored training geared toward their needs. Consortium members appreciated that we removed the red tape, taking care of creating and certifying a formal Registered Apprenticeship program through the Department of Labor (DOL). In addition, WIRE-Net outlines the selection criteria and tracks progress for each apprentice; manages the relationship with the Ohio State Apprenticeship Council (OSAC) so companies can focus on running businesses, providing the on-the-job training needed for these positions; and organizes companies with similar talent needs so they can compare notes and share best practices for training and integrating apprenticeships into human resource and talent management programs.
The consortium approach translates into buying power and helps persuade trainers to be responsive to the needs of consortium members, especially in terms of scheduling technical course work. This ensures apprentices meet standard credentials such as National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS). WIRE-Net also identifies sources of training dollars to keep the training costs affordable for small and medium sized manufacturers, working with both local and national partners.
With the program underway, we are seeing many challenges, including ensuring apprenticeship candidates have the mechanical aptitude and program awareness to enroll in the program. To address this, working with the local school district, we created a pre-apprenticeship program with area Career Centers. We want to prepare candidates with a solid foundation so they are set up for success versus frustration.
There is a common misconception that only unionized shops can implement apprenticeship programs. Not true! In the Great Lakes region, this myth stems from the fact that, historically, this training platform has been dominated by mostly unionized facilities. However, today, apprenticeships are gaining broader acceptance in both union and non-union environments.
Based on the DOL Registered Apprenticeship model, this company-sponsored training is similar for both environments. The consortium approach provides these non-union employers a collaborative partner to set up and operate the program ensuring that an apprentice is not just informally shadowing a machinist for three months—but specific skill outcomes are articulated and measured. Workers obtain industry-recognized credentials that certify skills and tie their wage progression to skill attainment.
While alone, many smaller manufacturers would be unable to fund an apprenticeship program, banding together with fellow manufacturers as through NOMAC can drive down the cost.
A substantial commitment is still required of consortium companies and WIRE-Net has leveraged donations and grants such as one from the Cleveland Foundation to build out this model.
In addition, WIRE-Net is bringing resource partners into the initiative to defray some of the costs of technical training (delivered by community colleges or other adult education centers) and is working with partners including NIMS and the SkillUp program of Cuyahoga County to secure grants for companies that sign up apprentices.
There are all sorts of funding opportunities out there if you know where to look.