Training for skilled manufacturing positions is extremely important to the future of manufacturing in the United States, yet in many states it has fallen by the wayside. Well-paid manufacturing jobs that require manual skills are out there, and as the skilled workforce ages, it becomes more and more difficult to fill critical positions with trained employees.
Largely due to the decline in state-supported manufacturing sciences programs at local colleges and technical schools to train technical workers, the only way Connecticut Spring & Stamping (CSS) could meet its capacity and continue to grow was to replace formerly state-funded training with its own programs, tailored to the skill sets required for tool and die makers and spring coilers.
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Rapid Growth Fuels Hiring
CSS is growing at a fairly rapid pace — about 20-30% per year. The company has struggled for the past decade to get the qualified workers it needs to meet its capacity and expand its capabilities. The manufacturing jobs at our shop require both computer literacy to program machines, as well as manual skills, including the ability to maneuver the parts and machines.
The difficulty in finding skilled employees meant that CSS had to rely on overtime, ask managers to work longer hours, and lean harder on key employees to support customer needs. In addition, the company had to examine new opportunities more carefully to ensure we could fully support them.
Apprenticeship Program Bridges the Gap
Because of limited outside training resources, in 2012, CSS decided to create its own in-house apprenticeship program, tailored to spring and stamping to produce metal-formed parts and coiled springs. Specific tracks were developed for CNC production set-up, press and fourslide diemakers, stamping press set-up operator, fourslide set-up operator, and heat set set-up operator.
To fund the program, CSS took full advantage of available grants, including the Connecticut Dept. of Labor’s 21st Century Skills Training Program and the Advance Training Grant Program.
Under the direction of a qualified training instructor, and using the same guidelines established by the state apprenticeship program for becoming a certified skilled worker in Connecticut, apprentices are trained in tasks assigned to each competency (basic, intermediate, and advanced) for each position. After successfully completing each competency, the apprentice receives an increase in compensation.
There is no timeline associated with each competency, and each apprentice learns at his or her own pace. The expectation is that workers will complete the program and get to competency level in about 3,000 hours. Required training is handled by crediting apprentices for what they already know, identifying any weaknesses, and providing the related training in an extremely focused way. For example, if a skilled employee working with an apprentice determines that the person is having a problem with blueprint reading or shop math, he or she will be sent to a class, or training might be brought in house.
A diverse group of 11 is currently enrolled in the program, including five minorities and two women. Trainees basically work through the program eight hours a day, five days a week. As they become more advanced in the trade, CSS will promote more employees into the program. The program cost is fairly low, but there is about a 20-30% weekly efficiency loss associated with having the skilled employee train the apprentice.
Since the program began less than a year ago, there are no graduates yet, but the first crop is well on its way. For example, 23-year-old tool maker Alex Pabon has been working at CSS for five years, and credits the program for opening doors to him that would not have been otherwise. Similarly, Brian Mills, a 24-year-old auto power press setup apprentice, says the program has given him a goal he can shoot for every day and makes the job a lot more interesting. “Once I’m done, I want to keep moving forward and make a good career for myself. I would not have had the opportunity if it wasn’t for the apprenticeship program at CSS.”
While the CSS program is clearly a success, and allows the company to promote from within its own ranks, we still hold out hope that technical institutions and local community colleges will step up to fill the void by establishing training programs and internships to meet the needs of manufacturers.