Should Your Plant Pursue Apprenticeships?

May 6, 2020
In this episode of the Manufacturing Tomorrow's Workforce Podcast, we examine how apprenticeship programs can help manufacturers build their own talent pipelines.

Although many manufacturers may be putting hiring on hold due to the coronavirus crisis, it wasn't very long ago that they were struggling to hire trained personnel. Throughout this podcast, many guests have cited apprenticeships as a solution to this problem. To illustrate the success of these programs, Putman Media intern Alexandra Ditoro interviewed Melody Whitten, director of development for 58 Inc., a part of Shelby County Alabama's Economic Development Committee working to help manufacturers build their own talent pipelines through apprenticeships.

Listen to the podcast below. 

Podcast Transcript

Alexandra Ditoro: Thank you so much for joining me, Melody.

Melody Whitten: Thank you for having me. I appreciate the invitation.

Alexandra: Yeah, of course. To start out, could you tell me a bit about how 58 Inc. was started and how 58 Inc.'s apprenticeship program works? From what I understand, you partner with local manufacturers to provide these programs. Is that right?

Melody: That is correct. So, a little bit of background on 58 Inc. 58 Inc. was birthed about two and a half years ago. Prior to 58 Inc., Shelby County had a typical economic development entity that focused primarily on industrial development. The director of that entity was looking at retirement, and the county thought that might be a great opportunity to, maybe, take another look at how they were approaching economic development and, instead of looking at just industrial recruitment, to take a more comprehensive approach and look at not only industrial recruitment but industrial expansion within our own business and industry makeup, but also adding a commercial development component, a retail development component, and a workforce development component.

So, 58 Inc. is fully funded by our county government and we cover all facets of economic development from industrial development and recruitment, commercial development, retail development and workforce development.

The way the apprenticeship program started is we actually got a call from our local career center—I don't know how that is referred to across the nation, but in Alabama it's the Alabama Career Center System—most people may think of that as the state employment office. It's kind of the one-stop-shop for people that are either looking to find a job or find training or for companies to go to that entity to find employees. So, I received phone call from the business services rep at the career center in Alabaster, telling us that they had met with some companies recently that were struggling to hire machinists. And they asked if we would come, meet with those companies and talk through any solutions that we may have.

And so, they set up a meeting, and we went and met with three companies that day. To make a long story short, we basically figured out that we were experiencing a really strong economy and we had a shortage of skilled machinists in the region, and I think that tends to be a nationwide problem right now. Most machinists are aging out and reaching retirement, and because there has been such a national push on sending kids to college, we have lost our focus a little bit on skillsets that are found in advanced manufacturing or construction. So, there tends to be a shortage in those areas.

When we were talking through that with the companies, I explained to them, "Obviously you've tried everything to hire machinists." They had gone through employment services and utilized LinkedIn and headhunters, and they just were not having any success. And so, I said, "I think what we're going to have to do is basically grow them, and the best way to do that is through a USDOL Registered Apprenticeship Program." And so, we basically had those companies excited about that option and they bought in. That's how the program was birthed.

Alexandra: Wow, that's awesome. It sounds like something that's really beneficial to the community in the area that you're in.

Melody: It has been way since that time have grown the apprenticeship program. We now have three apprenticeship models. We have one for machinists, one for welding and one for industrial maintenance. Our apprenticeship program is fairly unique in that we set it up as a consortium model.

Normally, if a company were going to pursue a USDOL apprenticeship program for their plant or their employees, the company themselves would negotiate the standards with the U.S. Department of Labor, and all the standards framework for what has to be completed through the apprenticeship program in order to successfully complete the program. So, the standards outline the curriculum and the related training that has to be taught within the apprenticeship, but it also outlines the OJT hours that have to be completed by the apprentice at the employer's site. And those two components simultaneously makeup the apprenticeship and are outlined in what is called the standards.

Normally, a company would negotiate those standards with the Department of Labor themselves, but our companies are not large companies, they're fairly small companies in the grand scheme of manufacturing. So, they did not really want to negotiate with the Department of Labor, those standards. And they really didn't want to go to all that trouble honestly, because some of them were only planning on hiring one apprentice, and they saw that as a lot of work and very time-consuming to only have one apprentice.

And so, we approached our community colleges and said, "Okay, if we have companies that want to put apprentices in your training programs, whether it be machining, welding or industrial maintenance, would you be willing, not only to be the training provider, but would you be willing to be the sponsor?" And the sponsor...and you'll learn through this podcast, there's a lot of terminology related to the USDOL Registered Apprenticeship model, but the sponsor, in this case, is actually the entity that holds the standards that we discussed earlier. So, the colleges, in this case, graciously agreed to be the sponsor. They went to the U.S. Department of Labor and started negotiating what those standards were. Basically, what we had to do was get the job descriptions from the company and compare them to the standards to make sure that what we were actually going to teach in the standards would fit the job descriptions that the companies were trying to sell.

Once we were able to get everyone in agreement as to what that standard would look like, then the standards were executed between the Department of Labor and the community college. So, they are really the frontline with the Department of Labor—the colleges hold the standards, the colleges do all of the reporting and recording, they do the audits, and of course, the Department of Labor will go to them for any information that they need because they're the sponsor. But if there is a situation where a company or an apprentice is not providing the sponsor, which in this case is the college, the information that they need, the Department of Labor can at some point in time go to the company themselves and conduct a visit or conduct an audit. But we haven't experienced that yet. So, currently, our colleges are the sponsors, and our companies benefit from being able to hire those individuals, put them to work, put them in the training program without necessarily having to deal with the paperwork and the bureaucracy that comes with being the sponsor, if that makes sense.

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