Focus on the Workforce: A Workforce Development Strategy
"You can't change the past, but you can and should shape your future, because if you don't, someone else surely will." Joel Barker, an independent scholar and futurist, coined this phrase as a result of his long, in-depth exploration into the power of paradigm shifts and their effect on the corporate world. Looking back through time, it's easy to find many examples that validate Joel Barker's statement. Advances in technology, innovative ideas, alternative methods, scientific discoveries, and business needs have been the basic driving forces behind most of the greatest changes that have redefined the way we view the world and live our lives.
In the late 1990s, a major paradigm shift in the way that workforce training was being deployed took place at Penn United Technologies, a precision manufacturer located about 35 miles north of Pittsburgh. Founded in 1971 by three men with entrepreneurial spirit, Carl Jones, Robert Becker, and Charles Barton, the company had its beginning in a garage on Carl Jones' farm as a tool and die shop. It has grown to more than 700 employee-owners working in nine high-tech business units in 11 facilities, totaling 586,752 ft2 (54,509 m2) of production space, and producing $94 million in sales in 2007.
In the early years, workforce training was accomplished through traditional, unstructured, on-the-job-training. Journeymen, acting as mentors to new-hire apprentices, taught the ins and outs of the trade through a continuous cycle of one-on-one demonstrations and practice, until the apprentice got it right and could move on to the next task. At the time, this approach seemed to be the most logical way to train, given the small size of the company and a lopsided ratio of more journeymen than apprentices.
Furthermore, since the journeymen themselves were taught via this method, and they never received any training to become better trainers, they simply emulated their training paradigm and did what they thought was best—they just didn't know any better. In a short time, the volume and complexity of the work increased, and more apprentices were hired to meet the need. This caused the lopsided ratio of journeymen to apprentices to begin shifting in the other direction, which in turn impacted the training plan. Journeymen were now struggling to find a balance between producing parts, supervising workers, and training increased numbers of unskilled apprentices.
In response to the situation, the company sought assistance from the local community college and vocational technical schools to provide a more structured training approach for its apprentices. Additionally, correspondence courses were also used, and on-the-job-training continued, but not to the level seen previously. The success of this approach was also shortlived, and Penn United was faced once again with having to find a new way to train apprentices. By the mid-1990s, the staff concluded that the value of the training being provided by these sources was not sufficient to meet the company's need to produce highly skilled workers in a timely manner and at a reasonable cost.
Problems such as insufficient hands-on training, lack of machines, outdated technology, having to wait too long for a course to be scheduled, inflexible class hours, class cancellations, high costs, and instructors with outdated technical skills were a few of the major obstacles that had to be overcome. Adding to this list of problems was an even bigger dilemma—these schools were also unable to attract enough new students with the essential aptitude necessary to fill the workforce-pipeline needs of a fast-growing Penn United.
Here's the position Penn United was in. On one hand we had the opportunity to grow the business and increase employment. On the other hand, we did not have the support we needed from the training providers in the community to provide the human capital and training services necessary to expand the business. The resolution of this difficult situation resulted in another paradigm shift, but this time the shift was much bigger and more complicated than the last one. We decided it was time to take matters into our own hands, and control our future by making training an integral part of the business strategy of the company.
Between the fall of 1998 and the summer of 1999, a team was formed and tasked to develop the new training plan. The plan included the development of curricula, hiring a training staff, purchasing machine tools and other resources and, lastly, building a corporate training center to house all these things. Moving quickly, the team designed nine apprenticeship programs, Tool and Die Maker, Machinist: precision Grinder, Quality Technician, Press Technician, Die Designer, Electroplating Technician, Carbide Finish Grinder, and Precision Assembler, and registered them with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Apprenticeship Training. In July of 1999, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Education granted Penn United a license to open a Private Licensed School under the name of the Learning Institute for the Growth of High Technology or L.I.G.H.T.
On September 1, 1999, we opened the doors to our newly constructed, $1.2 million, 17,000 ft2 (1579 m2) training center. The center consists of three classrooms, six laboratories (machining, grinding, CNC, metrology, chemistry, and computer), and administrative offices. Completing the training center is a staff of five people. LIGHT's primary mission is to educate and train company apprentices and employees, as well as be a resource for all manufacturers in the community.
For three years after the center was built, we were hiring an average of 10 new apprentices per month until we reached our staffing goal. Although the number of new hires is now much less, the training process that new hires were exposed to back then remains in effect today.
Potential new hires come from all walks of life with varying skills, experience, and knowledge. Candidates are tested to ensure they possess the aptitude necessary to guarantee they can be successful in their apprenticeship academics. Newly hired employees are assigned to the LIGHT training center and spend five days/week, eight hours/day for six weeks going through what we call "Basic Training." During the first two weeks, apprentices learn basic math, print reading, and how to use measurement hand tools. In the remaining eight weeks, they spend their days learning machining theories in the classroom, and then immediately apply this knowledge in the labs with a heavy focus on hands-on activities. During this time, the apprentices are constantly being measured with a combination of theory tests and practical applications. The minimum acceptable passing score for any test is 83%, but some are as high as 100%. Finally, apprentices also receive weekly performance evaluations from the instructors to point out their strengths and areas that need improvement.
Following the six weeks of Basic Training, the apprentices are assigned to a manufacturing position. Apprentices return to the LIGHT center for three hours, one day/week, for the remainder of the time it takes to complete their respective apprenticeship. Because all of the apprenticeships have nationally recognized, portable credentials built into them, such as National Institute for Metalworking Skills/NIMS credentials or the American Society for Quality certifications, we are able to offer them as competency-based versus time-based programs. This means that seat time can be reduced, and an apprentice can finish a program sooner than scheduled, if he or she is capable of demonstrating competency in any particular study or task by passing a written test and/or completing a project. To date, LIGHT has graduated 239 journeymen and trained many other incumbent workers, both inside and outside the company, in a wide variety of subjects and skills.
Training plays a key role in the health and longevity of any organization. Too many organizations don't pay enough attention to it until there is a crisis or immediate need. When business is good, there is no time to train; when business is slow, there's no money to train. This attitude continues to plague many organizations. The time to train is now. Regardless of the size of the company or the nature of the business, every organization has a continuous need for quality training, delivered in an effective manner, and at an affordable cost.
The approach Penn United took, or the depth to which we took it, may or may not be the right response to your training needs. What I ask is that you ponder these questions: Who really cares if your employees are fully qualified to do their job? Who really cares if, as a result of untrained workers, you are unable to take on new business? Who really cares if your company is in business tomorrow, next year, or decades from now? Who cares more than you do?
If you really delve into these questions, the answer is the same for each of them—nobody else cares as much as you do. You can, and should, shape your future. If you can't find someone who cares as much as you do about your future, take matters into your own hands.
This article was first published in the March 2009 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.