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Focus on the Workforce: You're Hired--Apprenticeships Can Reinvigorate Workforce

Chris Kaiser







By Chris Kaiser
President and CEO
BIG Kaiser Precision Tooling Inc.
Hoffman Estates, IL  

It may seem that no stone has been left unturned in the ongoing push to bridge the skills gap in American manufacturing.

As an industry, manufacturing has devoted concerted efforts towards countering misconceptions, building inroads with technical colleges and general recruitment. And while there have been high-value, public victories in changing these perceptions, the fact remains that manufacturing jobs remain unfilled while thousands of Americans, lacking the correct set of skills, are seeking work.

By comparison, Switzerland has the most competitive economy in the world according to the World Economic Forum, due in part to the success of its manufacturing industry. A big reason for its industrial prowess: a surplus of skilled workers, thanks to highly developed apprenticeship programs. Nearly 66% of Swiss young adults choose to attend vocational school, making it the most common form of post-compulsory education or training.

And unlike manufacturers in the United States, more than half of all Swiss shops train employees through rigorous apprenticeship programs that incorporate classroom learning and hands-on training, applying the “reap what you sow” mentality. Apprenticeship programs allow manufacturers to assess potential employees for an extended period of time, and the investment pays off. By the end of a two-year span, apprentices are able to work almost independently, and manufacturers are left with a highly skilled workforce trained to their exact standards. 

The KAISER Approach

The KAISER Precision Tooling apprenticeship program is active in Switzerland, admitting two or three new apprentices each year. These trainees learn to master each machine in the Rümlang, Switzerland boring tool factory. For those who aren’t looking to work on the machines, opportunities are available to work off the floor in the production office and R&D department. With the extensive hands-on work, apprentices leave the program with a highly specialized and marketable skill set.   

In Switzerland, young people attend basic school and high school, then secure an apprenticeship before going to college. Most apprentices are 14 or 15 years of age when they start. The KAISER program aims to accompany and augment, not replace, high school and college-level education.

Schooling does not halt when the apprenticeship begins, however. The first two years of the apprenticeship consist of two days at school and three days of shop work. For the following two years, apprentices attend one day of classes and spend two nights each week learning supplementary skills from external seminars.

Finding the Right Talent

When looking for potential apprentices, Toni Schüpbach, Head of Training, KAISER, attends high school fairs to speak with students about careers in manufacturing. Interested students are encouraged to apply. Schüpbach then conducts a cultural and educational background check, looking at report cards and test scores.

If Schüpbach finds someone who might be a good fit, he brings them into the shop for two to three days to see how they work and how they interact with their peers. KAISER receives anywhere from five to fifty applications per year and typically accepts only two to three apprentices.

The year-round program begins in the summer. For the first three to four months, apprentices do everything manually, before graduating to automation. Four months in, they move on to the machines. They spend time on every machine, learning how to properly operate each. After six months, apprentices are usually fully acclimated and are working full-time on the floor.

Though hands-on training is a big part of the program, classroom teaching is equally important. Halfway through the program, classroom work culminates in a written exam to test apprentices’ knowledge of the machines and shop processes. Once they’ve passed their exam, apprentices work in each department and begin to determine where they might have an interest in working permanently. Apprentices can then plan their own projects based on personal strengths and interests. They have the freedom to test their skills in a lot of different areas, choosing their own career paths.

Although knowledge and training are invaluable, apprentices do receive an annual salary—which increases each year. Of course, the single greatest reward for an apprentice is a job offer. Roughly 50% of participants are offered a job with KAISER after completing the program.

Mutually Beneficial

The apprenticeship model has been used in Switzerland for a long time, and it has been quite successful. Manufacturing companies benefit from having well-trained workers, and apprentices learn virtually everything they need to know in order to get a job—all while forming friendships, learning from top-quality teachers and earning a yearly salary.

Apprenticeship proponents talk about the ability to train employees to their machines and processes, without having to train out bad habits that may have been learned elsewhere. What’s more, apprentices reap the benefits of classroom education while spending hours working on the actual machines they are learning about. Schüpbach believes the real-world training is what sets KAISER apprentices apart.

Kevin, a KAISER Precision Tooling apprentice, makes tooling adjustments on the factory floor.

Transferring Overseas

As the United States economy struggles and companies slash budgets, training programs are often the first to go. Within the past 10 years, participation in apprenticeship programs in the United States has significantly declined, contributing to the gap between the skills of the available workers and the skill set manufacturers demand.

While apprenticeships are declining in the United States, STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) schools are on the rise. It’s possible that the missing link between grade school STEM education and employment is a valuable apprenticeship program.

The United States Registered Apprenticeship program offers access to roughly 1000 career areas, including careers in the metalworking industry. While manufacturing apprenticeships meet the National Association of Manufacturers Endorsed Manufacturing Certification System, manufacturing shops only run some of the programs. On the other hand, industry associations run many, but they can’t always offer access to every machine, which limits the hands-on experience job shop owners are looking for. What’s more, these programs are often shorter than those offered by European companies like KAISER. The shorter programs don’t provide the extensive training and knowledge necessary to make a deep dive into shop-floor operations. The result is a workforce with underdeveloped skills.

The KAISER apprenticeship program was put in place to train future employees. Schüpbach knows his apprentices can handle the machines in the shop because he spends four years training them to do so. KAISER is making its own future.

US manufacturing shops might take a page out of the KAISER book. To bridge the skills gap, companies should consider taking matters into their own hands—sponsoring apprenticeship programs that will train employees to their exact standards. Adopting the KAISER model might be the solution so many American manufacturers are looking for. ME


This article was first published in the March 2014 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.  Click here for PDF.  

Published Date : 3/1/2014

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