Manufacturing Talent

Turning Point

Recently, I was in southern Germany visiting the headquarters for cutting tool manufacturer Horn. It’s a biennial event the company calls Technology Days and is held in June preceding the EMO trade show in Italy.

Like most companies I’ve visited in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, Horn has a large and active apprenticeship program. For these companies, apprenticeships are simply how it’s done. Even relatively small manufacturers I’ve visited over there, that are not OEMs, use apprenticeships to varying degrees. 

Currently, Horn has 60 apprentices training at the company’s training center. Each year the group is increased by 15 young people to cover attrition. They and companies like them are literally manufacturing talent.

At the end of training, there are numerous employment opportunities at Horn as well as direct entry into a profession. They can also opt for a dual studies program specializing in cutting tool technology. These kids have a future, and Horn’s future is ensured by having a pipeline of skilled workers moving forward.

Increasingly, I’ve been hearing and reading about a resurgence of apprenticeship programs here in the states. There seems to be a “maker movement” afoot in the land. It’s like a switch has been turned on recognizing that there is a future in manufacturing that has been dormant for too long.

In one such article I recently read, the discussion was about the divide between those who “do” and those who “think.” It’s as if the two concepts are mutually exclusive.

My experience in covering manufacturing has been significantly different. It’s been in shops that I’ve seen some of the most innovative thinking applied to making things.

I think the division between “thinkers” and “doers” is somewhat systemic, in part because middle and high schools have defunded the technical arts, home economics and the creative arts. Why do we as a society channel so called “smart” kids away from educational paths that lead to the trades and manufacturing? To me, that is the most obvious difference between the education system tracks in Europe and here in the U.S. Here, there seems to be a cultural stigma attached to being a “doer” versus being a “thinker” that is not part of the equation in Europe.

But the fact is, being smart doesn’t disqualify a student from wanting to make things. It’s more of the formal structures that are built to educate that channel students to one path or the other. And these structures are slow to dismantle. However, they can be dismantled. 

Here’s an example. Precision Plus is a Wisconsin-based precision machined parts manufacturer. Three years ago, when similar manufacturers around the state were wringing their hands about quality of talent coming out of schools, Mike Reader, Precision Plus’s president and CEO, decided to do something about it.

He started a training program in his shop to cultivate high school and college talent from Wisconsin and neighboring Illinois in the basics of precision manufacturing and engineering. The idea is to give these candidates real-life experience on the shop floor with the goal of showing that manufacturing’s historic image is simply not relevant in a modern shop. 

Today, Precision Plus has a stable of 16 interns participating in its successful apprenticeship program. It’s like having a farm system for talent and future employees.

Apprenticeship programs are among the weapons being deployed by manufacturers to combat the shortage of skilled workers. But more important, it is a grassroots movement being replicated across the country.

Companies such as Precision Plus and many others are creating programs to ensure their future and in doing so are empowering young people to develop skills that ensure their future as well.

These skill sets are a foundation upon which a career can be built. Moreover, many of those skills are portable.

I’ve heard the argument that some use against training and apprenticeship programs that ask why people should be trained who might go work for a competitor. With several million manufacturing jobs open, it seems to me that if you have workers who are keepers, then keep them. Good training and a company culture that invests in its people are how companies can get the job done and keep the people who do the job.