Conquering the Skills Gap

Investment in apprenticeships is mission critical to help fill the skills gap.

Cox Manufacturing opens its doors to students and teachers to entice the younger generation to pursue diverse careers in manufacturing. (Provided by Cox) Small Cnc Lathe Machine

Conquering the Skills Gap

The only reason David Thompson went to college was because “that was the thing to do” for his generation of early millennials.

“That was what everybody said, you’ve got to go to college to get a good job,” he recalled. “That’s your ticket for the future. I bought that hook, line, and sinker.”

Nine years after college graduation, Thompson was 32 years old, had been working in the restaurant industry since graduation, was burned out, had earned his way up to $12 an hour as a cook, and hadn’t stepped foot on a career path. He desperately needed a reset. Lured by friends, a good economy, low taxes, and a lifestyle different from his East Coast background, he decided to move to Texas.

As Thompson drove around his new home of San Antonio to get familiar with the area, he saw his future on a sign advertising apprenticeships at Cox Manufacturing Company, a screw machine products maker. At the time, the starting wage was $12 an hour, what Thompson had been earning after almost a decade in the restaurant business. Cox apprentices now start at $16 an hour.

“I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but had ruled out restaurants and retail,” he said. “I was looking for something different.”

Thompson went home and did what any good HR person would recommend. He researched the company before applying. One math test and three interviews later, in November 2015 he was hired into the apprenticeship program to become a CNC set-up technician.

Finally, Thompson was on a career track. In fact, after working on the factory floor for years, he’s now Cox’s training coordinator.

“I was extraordinarily fortunate to find this company and I’m very grateful Mr. Cox set up this program,” he said of the apprenticeship.

In 2015, Thompson was one of almost 198,000 new apprentices among a total of nearly 448,000 trainees in more than 19,000 programs, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics. The Labor Department doesn’t report separately on apprenticeships at companies like Cox, but aggregates their numbers with programs run by unions, the military, nonprofits, trade schools, and others.

The numbers have only grown since Thompson was a newbie apprentice. In 2021, more than 241,000 new apprentices entered the national apprenticeship system for a total of 593,000 trainees. Almost 3,000 new programs were established last year, bringing the total number of apprenticeship programs to nearly 27,000, according to Labor Department numbers.

Company-sponsored apprenticeships are just one of many efforts to overcome a chronic shortage of workers to fill the country’s manufacturing plants, a situation made more urgent with recent signs of a resurgence in American production. At the end of June, there were 790,000 job openings in the sector, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The COVID-19 pandemic, rising wages, employee burnout, and retirements among baby boomers all exert pressure on the availability of qualified workers.

Bill Cox, president and CEO of Cox Manufacturing and its second-generation leader, started the apprenticeships 12 years ago.

“We certainly have a pool (of applicants) to pick through,” he said. “It has gotten more challenging this last year, as it has with everybody, because there are more job applicants than openings. But we seem to be faring better than our peers.”

He credits community engagement with creating interest in working at Cox, including his role as founding chair of a nonprofit to promote skilled jobs in manufacturing, the San Antonio Alliance for Technical Education and Applied Math in Science Corporation, as well as conducting student and teacher tours.

“Initially we focused on students, then we realized that the teachers were really the ones that we could leverage on those tours to get more impact,” he said. “Because so many teachers just don’t realize the jobs that are out there in manufacturing, especially the skilled trades.”

Cox also recently participated in a presentation with the local manufacturers association, which resulted in at least five companies starting apprenticeship programs, including another CNC manufacturer, a plating shop, and a sausage company that needs maintenance technicians for its machines. Cox Manufacturing developed software in-house to manage its apprenticeship program and is sharing that with the new programs.

Hanover, N.H., and its environs in New Hampshire and Vermont were known as “Precision Valley” in the 1970s due to a booming machine tool manufacturing industry. In the decades since, the area’s fortunes have changed so much that in the mid-2010s, a local community college shut down its CNC operator program due to lack of interest.

Fortunately, Hanover-headquartered Hypertherm Associates, a manufacturer of industrial cutting products and software, had invested $2 million and set aside classroom and machining lab space to set up a CNC operator apprenticeship program in 2007 in partnership with the Institute for American Apprenticeships (formerly HITEC). The Hypertherm Technical Training Institute pays trainees a $17 starting wage and teaches skills including blueprint reading, geometric dimensioning and tolerancing, math and machining.

The company estimated that through the HTTI, reduced training time and increased work quality save the company nearly $1.6 million a year relative to its prior training, according to a 2016 case study.

So far, about 700 trainees have graduated from the program, which has since grown to include apprenticeships in advanced CNC machining, assembly, and mechatronics/automation. Some graduates remain on the shop floor while others have branched out into other departments within the company, such as environmental engineering and IT support.

Despite its track record and a competitive wage, Hypertherm’s apprenticeship program’s recruitment fortunes have changed too. At the beginning, open houses would attract upwards of 100 candidates for the training, said Tim Renner, Hypertherm’s program manager for learning and development.

“We’ve gotten to the point now with the job market where we’re actually struggling to find candidates,” Renner said.

He remains upbeat but realistic about the company’s struggle to attract applicants despite such Hypertherm perks as paid apprenticeships, sponsored college tuition and a no layoffs philosophy that held even during the Great Recession.

“Even with our assembly roles we’re finding that with the job market and the current economy, it’s challenging,” Renner said. “There’s just so many opportunities out there that we’re just another employer. Which is interesting because it’s a position I don’t think we’ve been in before or at least not for a while. So, we still try to set ourselves apart and try to offer that value proposition to associates.

“But I don’t think it’s anything we’ll truly solve. I think we’ll have this program as long as we have CNC operators.”

Meanwhile, a new apprenticeship program uses augmented reality, a feature sure to appeal to the technologically savvy, other members of Thompson’s Millennial generation and Gen Z, the digital natives.

In response to a global shortage of welders, Comau, the Grugliasco, Torino-based global industrial automation products and systems company, started the new robotic welding training within its Comau Academy in partnership with the Spanish firm Seabery Augmented Technology.

Seabery’s Soldamatic virtual welding program is used with Comau’s e.DO educational robot in the turnkey program that can be used in schools or at businesses. Soldamatic uses Seabery’s proprietary Hyperreal-SIM, which “creates the most realistic welding training experience aside from actual welding,” according to the companies. Unlike real welding, though, the training uses no welding consumables, which saves money. The program is available in more than 20 languages, and successful completion of the course yields a  Comau Robotics Welding License that students can use to find work.

“Our objective and mission is to improve skills-based training in technology,” said CEO Pedro Marquinez of Seabery.

While a trainee wears a camera-equipped helmet and works with a real welding torch labeled with augmented reality markers on the nozzle, he sees the results of his work via a simulated weld. As training progresses, he learns to program the robot and use it for welding.

“There are a few reasons for the two cameras,” Marquinez said. “They provide better detection for augmented reality. In normal operations, the two cameras act as your eyes for a more realistic welding training experience. If the vision of the welder is occluded in of one of the cameras, as can occur in real welding, the system will work with only one camera and the welder can continue working. (Also,) the two cameras provide better depth perception providing precision to the millimeter.”

The trainee gets automatic feedback with color-coded icons—a green arrow for good, red for bad. As a student becomes more advanced, the icons are no longer used.

Anna Rehder, a student in Siemens’ training program in Nuremberg, Germany, said in a video, “As a novice, you really don’t know what you should be doing. But with these arrows you get a feeling about how you should be holding the welding torch and about what you should be doing in general.”

Siemens requires its experienced welders to recertify periodically, and the German company told Seabery the use of the Soldamatic to prepare for recertification testing reduced the employees’ real welding practice time by 33 percent and saved 60 percent in the cost of consumables.

Soldamatic includes a programmable teach pendant and features hundreds of welding procedures and positions. It also allows the use of advanced welding joints.

“Starting from zero, the student can acquire all the competencies to reach a high level of welding training,” said Stefano Pesce, education and consultancy technologies solutions portfolio manager for Comau.

Along with simulation and a curriculum, the training provides analysis of a trainee’s skill to the instructor who can give appropriate feedback to the apprentice. Results include an overall score and assessment of welding elements such as arc length, porosity in the weld, spatter, and presence of inclusions, among others.

The Soldamatic not only eliminates the cost of consumables, it also eliminates the environmental impact while speeding up a trainee’s time to certification, according to the companies.

Comau director Ezio Fregnan reinforced the value of hands-on training, “Thanks to the powerful combination of augmented reality and the e.DO educational robot, we are helping fill an important skills gap while empowering students with the know-how needed to pursue careers in robotic welding.”

Job seekers evaluating employee benefits at their desired manufacturer may do well to look beyond health insurance and a retirement fund match to see if the company offers upskilling. Conversely, shops that offer such in-house training may find it’s the differentiator that sets them apart from other employers.

“I think it would definitely be an advantage,” said Sarita Rasquinha, senior manager of global learning and organizational development at Flex Ltd., a $24-billion global contract manufacturer. “I am not aware of too many companies offering a program like CAP (Capability Acceleration Program, one of Flex’s upskilling programs). And especially given the diverse kind of disciplines or programs we offer, it will definitely attract talent.”

Flex’s CAP focuses on technical training in domains critical to the company, including surface mount technology, test engineering (radio frequency and mobile), optics, plastics, industrial engineering, project management, quality, automation, supply chain management, NPI and test development, simulation for future stage modeling, extended reality (augmented, virtual, and mixed), additive manufacturing, and Industry 4.0.

The program was developed in-house and uses Flex’s own subject matter experts to do the training. Learning is both online and in person, and the program has had 18,000 enrollments to date.

Conquering the Skills Gap

Precision Turned Parts “I believe that it’s definitely a win-win for both the company as well as employees,” said Rasquinha. “Employees get to increase their competencies while at the same time the company is proactively building their internal talent for when the need arises.”