Apprenticeship programs fill gaps in American manufacturing

| Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015, 9:00 p.m.

Aerotech has the space it needs to keep up with rising sales demand. It has the tools, too. Just not enough talent.

“Our shortcoming was our human resources,” said Ashley Wellner, director of manufacturing at the O'Hara company. “We have space to put the machines, but we don't have the people to run them.”

It is a common dilemma for American manufacturers, who are evolving into lucrative markets for quality, low-volume machined components as overseas competition absorbs demand for mass-made products.

The demand is from aerospace, automotive and medical industries, but a supply of skilled machinists is not keeping pace. And this skills gap has fed a renewed focus on apprenticeship programs to grow company workforces from within.

Apprenticeship programs are more rigorous than standard job-training, and offer an education many put on par with a college degree. Apprenticeships combine several years of practical training with class work that includes math, science and technical instruction.

Apprentices leave the programs with “journeyman” papers that offer a kind of trades-degree, certifying their skills and making them attractive to employers. Federal officials lately have promoted apprenticeships as a cost-effective alternative to college, as tuition climbs beyond what many middle-class families can afford.

“An apprenticeship is the ‘other four-year degree,' ” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez in Philadelphia on Dec. 11 to announce $100 million in grants for expanding apprenticeship programs. “It is a tried-and-true job-training strategy that offers a reliable path to the middle class, with no debt.”

Learning critical thinking

Manufacturers are turning to apprenticeships to cultivate workers who can do more than push buttons on a machine and turn out widgets. They need people to think critically, who can program machines and design, produce and inspect parts for such wide-ranging products as nuclear reactors, airplanes and artificial hips.

Yet these skills are hard to find.

A 2011 Manufacturing Institute study found that 67 percent of companies reported a moderate to severe shortage of available, qualified workers. More than half anticipated the shortage to worsen.

The problems stem, in part, from decades of complacency. The advent of automation in the late 1960s allowed companies to do more with fewer people, relaxing the need to develop people's skills, said James Wall, executive director of the National Institute for Metalworking Skills. The decades since brought a steady decline.

Even in the past 14 years, the number of active U.S. apprenticeship programs fell 48 percent, to 19,259 this year, according to Department of Labor data.

Younger generations were steered away from trades, which were perceived as dirty and undesirable, low-skill jobs. College could help them start a professional career. And as manufacturing became cleaner and more sophisticated, public perception did not evolve with it.

“That has caught up to us,” Wall said. “... There's not a real organized supply of people to replace those highly skilled workers. ... That's how apprenticeship is a very good way to develop a structured, on-the-job training program.”

Always a need for skills

Apprenticeship offered Josh Sanner a fast start to building a career after high school.

The North Huntingdon resident is in his second year of a four-year apprenticeship at Hamill Manufacturing Co. in Trafford, which partners in the program with New Century Careers, a nonprofit workforce development organization in the South Side.

Sanner considered the program a way to gain a marketable skill and earn a wage that points to a comfortable life. At 19 years old, he is vested in the company's employee-sponsored ownership program and saving for retirement in a 401k program.

“I know a lot of people that have gone to college and haven't been able to get a job in their field and are making minimum wage,” Sanner said. “There's always going to be a need for a machinist.”

Still, companies say it's hard to find young workers who share Sanner's perspective.

Alcoa Inc. started an apprenticeship program last year at its Technical Center in Upper Burrell, a hub for research and development. The center is key to the aluminum company's effort to move beyond mining and smelting operations and develop higher-margin automotive and aerospace products.

Alcoa officials said they need people who are comfortable using a grinder and lathe, who can use computerized machines and manual tools, and who can take a product from concept to finished component.

“In some cases, the idea may be written on a napkin,” said Ray Betz, the technical center's director of security, operations, human resources and environmental health and safety. “They have to do what they have to do to meet that need.”

Recouping investment

Training people takes time and money.

Oberg Industries in Buffalo Township has offered apprenticeship training since 1950 and says it invests $220,000 per person over the four-year program, including wages, benefits and training. Even in tough times, it is an expense the company refused to cut.

Oberg recoups its yearly $55,000 investment by the second year through productivity gains, said Greg Chambers, director of corporate compliance.

The return will be several hundred to several thousand percent over a person's career.

Apprenticeship graduates solve problems and innovate, Chambers said. They are taught to make a product and to evaluate the methods behind making it.

Gone are the days of factory workers punching cards and pulling levers, he said. In today's manufacturing, workers must think.

“If you don't know why you're doing what you're doing, you will always keep doing what you're doing,” Chambers said. “You will be Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble at slate manufacturing.”

Chris Fleisher is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7854 or

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.


Show commenting policy