Posted in: Industry News
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Tough Talk— Apprenticeship Programs—A Risk Worth Taking

Posted on Monday, September 24, 2018

Skilled trades such as plumbing, electrical, pipefitting and machining have always had apprenticeship programs for people entering these professions. The candidate would apply for entry into a program and upon acceptance would undertake a training regimen that included a couple years of on-the-job training augmented with the proper amount of supportive classroom studies. I’m sure many of you readers have uncles, aunts, parents, or grandparents who had very successful careers in these skilled professions.

Fast forward to 2018 and American industry struggles to fill skilled manufacturing positions. In April, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 286,000 job openings in durable goods manufacturing with industry finding only 209,000 people to fill those positions. The biggest issue is finding candidates with the necessary skills to support the increasingly more complex processes in modern day manufacturing. Manual labor is becoming less and less a part of industrial operations and is being replaced by automation, integrated processes, robotics, and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Preparing workers to fit this occupational climate is an inevitable challenge.

A common fear amongst manufacturers in creating indepth, long-term training programs is making a significant investment in employees only to have them leave for other opportunities. Multiple presenters in the workforce development session at the PCI Annual Meeting held in June admitted to having this happen, noting it is inevitable. However, they all agree that the benefits of apprenticeships and other in-depth, hands-on training programs far outweigh the risks. This is evident in the passion and dedication they have to their programs.

During the workforce development session, Kelli Vallieres, President/CEO of Sound Manufacturing, Inc., and Marjorie Valentin, Associate Dean of Three Rivers Community College, co-presented a comprehensive overview of their journey in establishing a sheet metal fabrication apprenticeship program. Sound Manufacturing, Inc., is a precision sheet metal fabricator in eastern Connecticut that, like so many other manufacturers, was facing an aging workforce with no skilled workforce pipeline. They collaborated with Three Rivers Community College and the Eastern Advanced Manufacturing Alliance to create a precision sheet metal fabricator apprenticeship program, not just to address Sound Manufacturing’s workforce needs, but those of similar manufacturers throughout the region as well. The program encompasses a total of 4,000 hours of curriculum, including general operations, metal cutting, metal forming, and inspection. At the completion of this training program, the apprentice receives a certificate that is recognized by the Department of Labor and more importantly, by industrial manufacturers and fabricators. Sound Manufacturing receives a welltrained, ready-to-hit-the-ground-running employee.

You may be asking yourself how the journey to develop a sheet metal fabrication apprenticeship program has relevance to the powder coating industry. The answer is: Likely more than you realize. One of the major points Kelli made in her presentation is that when she began investigating apprenticeship programs, there was no existing program for sheet metal fabrication. She told the Annual Meeting audience she suspected similarly, they’ve never come across a powder coating apprenticeship program. She followed this up with a challenge stating companies must take the initiative to develop the programs they need. Work with your local community colleges, manufacturing associations, state governments, etc., to develop the program you need and want.

The powder coating industry should accept this challenge and begin developing apprenticeship programs to meet the workforce development needs of the industry. Instruction should be balanced between classroom learning and on-thejob training with a curriculum that encompasses everything that affects overall coating quality and performance. Apprentices need to understand substrates, chemical cleaning/pretreatment, powder coating types, application principles, curing techniques, quality measurement, and process control. Collaboration with local community colleges needs to be explored and coursework identified and/or developed to support the program. In addition, a thorough understanding of DOL requirements is necessary to ensure the possibility of federal and state funding.

Establishing an apprenticeship program does not happen overnight and will involve a considerable amount of work and dedication by PCI members willing to take on this worthwhile challenge. But, as the old adage says, “Nothing worth doing is easy,” and those willing to make the investment will reap the benefits of a steady and welltrained workforce pipeline

Are you up for the challenge?

Kevin Biller is technical editor of Powder Coated Tough and the president of The Powder Coating Research Group. He can be reached at kevinbiller@yahoo.com.