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3 EASY WAYS TO CLOSE THE SKILLS GAP IN MANUFACTURING - Part 2 - On The Job Training and Workforce De

Part 2 - On The Job Training and Workforce Development

Part 1 of this post covered how employers large and small are taking ownership of closing the skills gap by implementing modern apprenticeship programs. Part 2 continues this theme by examining what leading companies are doing for on the job training and skills development of their existing workforces.

Batesville Tool & Die (Batesville, IN)

Batesville IN, population 6,250, sits in the southwest corner of the state approximately 45 miles west of Cincinnati, OH. Its main industry is manufacturing; its two largest firms are leaders in the casket and hospital bed industries. It has only 1 high school but is home to a branch of Ivy Tech Community College – an innovative, multi-campus community college with a strong manufacturing program. A small population coupled with a fair number of local manufacturers makes finding skilled workers a constant challenge.

Batesville Tool and Die is a global supplier of precision metal stamping components for the automotive, appliance, industrial and other industries, headquartered in Batesville. The company employs close to 400 people (3rd largest employer in Batesville). As its customers' needs evolve so do the training requirements for production workers (e.g., multi-axis CNC production equipment, sophisticated CAD design software). As with most modern manufacturing businesses, every employee has to be a problem-solver according to Brett Hofer, Training Coordinator. To fill its workforce demands, Batesville Tool and Die has made significant investments in its internal training and development programs. They also have invested in filling the top of the funnel with an innovative high school internship program (we'll cover this in Part 3 of this series) but see continually moving existing employees up the skills ladder as a key component of their continued success. This makes them somewhat unique in that many companies we have encountered don’t believe that the employer should be responsible for training the workers they may wish to hire.

Batesville has developed a competency-based model for mapping the skills required in their operations. They have a ladder-system where employees can progress from Level 1 (say basic grinding and de-burring operations) all the way to Level 6 (which might prepare employees for supervisory roles). It's up to employees to sign up for classes, but Batesville has made it easy for them by leveraging nearby Ivy Tech for some parts of the training delivery, even bringing instructors on-site. In this way, employees can decide when they are ready to take on new skills that might lead to new positions within the company. This model is similar, albeit on a smaller scale, to that being rolled out by AT&T with the ambitious goal of upskilling 100,000 employees.

Minnesota Advanced Manufacturing Partnership - +Connect Program (MnAMP)

MnAMP is a public-private partnership which brings industry, state leadership, public education, and manufacturing associations together to develop educational concepts that will produce a highly-skilled workforce to meet the needs of the manufacturing industry now and in the future. Its highly innovative +Connect program was developed specifically for incumbent workers with an eye toward lowering some of the historical barriers for employees to sign up for and participate in on-going training. +Connect offers a series of training courses led by live instructors through online video conferencing technology. This technology – often referred to as telepresence – provides participants with the sense of being present in a classroom with the instructor and other students without ever having to leave their job site. Unlike more common online learning tools which use pre-recorded video this approach lets students interact directly with the instructor (or other students). For employees, they don't have to try and go to a local community college after work - the training is streamed live to them (typically during their lunch hour, 3 days/week). For employers - they can take advantage of manufacturing curricula that have already been developed as well as not incurring the expense of bringing in an outside trainer or instructor to come on-site. Plus, it's highly cost effective and doesn't interrupt the work day.

Debra Bultnick, the Program Coordinator, described to me how they currently offer 13 courses - from Manufacturing Processes/Production to Practical Leadership Skills for Supervisors - some of which come with an industry-standard stackable credential. Bultnick also described how the program's adoption and impact have now expanded beyond Minnesota as anyone with a good broadband connection (located anywhere in the world) can take the classes.

One innovative user of +Connect is Parker Hannifin, a Fortune 250 global leader in motion and control technologies. They have a manufacturing facility in Grantsburg, WI - just across the Minnesota/Wisconsin border. They are using the +Connect tools in partnership with Pine Valley Technical College to provide a unique training program for existing workers to ultimately earn their AA degree if they so choose. According to Ross Manni the program leader at Parker, the online classes fulfill the 1st year requirements for an Associate's Degree at Pine Valley, so that employees can make significant progress toward their degree without having to leave Parker's facility. Students who want to earn the degree still have to complete the second year on-site at Pine Valley but this blended learning approach makes the program a lot more attractive to Parker's workers. While most trainees move on to the second year at Pine Valley, those that don't still have gained valuable skills and credentials, important for their success and the company's, via the +Connect program.

Trident Cement Plant (Three Forks, MT)

When you think of manufacturing innovation it's easy to think about companies like Ford, Tesla and Apple. But what about something as simple as cement? It turns out the modern building materials industry is chock full of innovative technologies and practices and none more relevant to the skills gap that what's going on at Trident Cement in Three Forks, MT. The plant has a long history dating back to 1908 and has provide material for vital regional infrastructure projects including the Grand Coulee Dam and Interstate I-90. Located between Helena and Bozeman the town shares similar characteristics to Batesville, IN - a reasonable amount of industry but a small, rural population. Unlike Batesville, there is no local community college and Bozeman is a good 45 minute drive - even longer in the winter.

Trident Cement has similar staffing and skills gap challenges faced by almost every employer we've spoken with: business is growing, yet they can't find enough skilled workers (or even entry level workers!) to fill the growth. Being in a rural community like Three Forks (population ~ 2,000) makes it even more challenging. Roland Bachmann, the plant manager, was originally trained in Switzerland and comes from the European tradition of excellent vocational training on which employers and society place high value. He has used this background and mindset to develop a portfolio of creative programs to address the skills funnel - from career engagement programs at the local high school to a modern apprenticeship program to online-based on the job training for existing workers.

Trident has many similar workforce needs as other manufacturers including welding, machine maintenance and the like. They also have training requirements unique to making cement, particularly in production control and production operations. They offer a wide range of employee training, recognizing that it's in the company's best interest to ensure their workers have the right skills.

For example, they offer online access to the American Welding Society's curriculum. AWS provides over 115 hours of online instruction in the basics of welding, metallurgy, welding math and blueprint reading. For the hands-on part of the welding program they often bring instructors on-site and conduct the training at the plant. For cement production specific training (ie., for those who will work in the control room), they partner with a German firm who has created a cement-industry specific online educational platform. Here they learn the essentials of operating a cement plant - from raw material processing to clinker production to environmental protection - including production simulations. The German firm also runs a 2 week supplemental course at their training center outside of Dusseldorf - great for trainees who may be new to the plant and need more hands on experience.

Common Ingredient for Success

As we highlighted in Part 1 of this post - and as you see above - the one common thread that connects a tool and die company with a fluid control company with a cement plant is that these manufacturing leaders have risen to the challenge of the skills gap by taking full responsibility themselves for creating the necessary skills within their workforce. Neither do they hold responsible nor do they blame other entities like the high schools, the community colleges or federal/state/local governments for the skills gap. It's their business, it's their workforce, it's their responsibility. Period.

On the job training is not a new concept, but it seems to be one in which many US manufacturers have under-invested. While Batesville Tool and Die, Parker Hannifin and Trident Cement may be in the minority, they represent a proven vision for how employers can solve these problems if they are willing to step up and take responsibility for doing so.

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