Upskilling & Retraining: A Manufacturing Imperative

Students in the Advanced Manufacturing Skills Center’s Electrical Assembly Mechanic Certificate program team up to bundle wires as part of their hands-on aerospace training. (Credit: AMSC of Edmonds College)
Students in the Advanced Manufacturing Skills Center’s Electrical Assembly Mechanic Certificate program team up to bundle wires as part of their hands-on aerospace training. (Credit: AMSC of Edmonds College)

The practice of upskilling and retraining manufacturing workers is nothing new. As smart manufacturing and Industry 4.0 become the norm, today’s manufacturers must properly train employees to consistently perform high-quality work that matches the organization’s needs.

Employees who are better equipped to do their jobs will, in turn, contribute more significantly to the company’s success and be more fulfilled in their careers.

The younger generation moving into manufacturing roles are attracted to jobs that align with the principles of Industry 4.0 and a potentially lucrative career path rooted in technology and teamwork.

The Challenge: Finding Workers Amid a Talent Gap

Manufacturing sectors need to fill more than 4 million jobs by 2030. Giving employees the right training for career advancement in manufacturing will display an organization’s investment in their success and professional growth. And employees are more likely to remain with a company when they feel valued.

Even as automation becomes more pronounced on shop floors, the need for human interaction is increasingly important as more skilled work becomes available.

To fill these jobs, manufacturers are turning inward to identify those with the skills to take over for professionals nearing retirement age. But the challenge remains: not enough trained workers can step in, so manufacturers need a different approach to find workers.

Lead instructor Brian Wilson demonstrates proper sealing technique in the Advanced Manufacturing Skill Center's 12-week aerospace training program. Photo credit: AMSC of Edmonds College
Lead instructor Brian Wilson demonstrates proper sealing technique in the Advanced Manufacturing Skill Center’s 12-week aerospace training program. Photo credit: AMSC of Edmonds College

According to a study by Manufacturing USA, equipping an advanced workforce with evolving skills, broadening access and sparking interest in advanced manufacturing careers are pivotal actions for workforce development within manufacturing. By implementing new educational partnerships and seeking talent in their own backyards, some manufacturers are applying successful approaches to preparing the workforce of the future.

New Educational Partnerships

The traditional model of manufacturing education has always mirrored undergraduate degrees, with perhaps less time spent in the classroom. Individuals who want to attend a trade school pick their college and earn a degree in their chosen industry. They first learn the concepts within the classroom and then secure an internship to receive hands-on training.

But this process is no longer productive. Manufacturers need employees right away, and they don’t have time to wait. The result: colleges and trade schools across the country are working closely with industry to ensure students learn the right curriculum—one that is specific to a certain job.

“There are several ways employers can access training for current employees including local resources such as community colleges, universities, MEPs (Manufacturing Extension Partnerships) as well as national resources such as Tooling U-SME,” says SME Chief Workforce Development Officer Jeannine Kunz. “Thousands of companies across the United States of all sizes seek Tooling U-SME’s help in developing high performing, satisfied employees who drive improvements in quality, profitability, productivity and innovation through training resources across most technical areas of manufacturing.”

Certification Programs

Edmonds College in Lynnwood, Wash., through its Advanced Manufacturing Skills Center (AMSC), has created a certification program in collaboration with Boeing, the Aerospace Futures Alliance and other industry partners that teaches students the right skills for job preparedness. This unique program, with training facilities at Paine Field in nearby Everett, can be used as a model for other partnerships.

“Aerospace is a major employer in northwest Washington, so it is in everyone’s best interest to ensure we are educating the future workforce in the best way possible,” says Larry Cluphf, executive director of the AMSC. “The AMSC partnered with the aerospace industry to build short-term certificate-of-completion programs for their specific needs.”

Students who graduate with these certificates typically get a job at Boeing or one of the over 200 industry suppliers in the region. The programs require an individual scores 80% or higher during the 12-week hybrid online/lab course in order to obtain a certificate. The results speak for themselves—more than 92% of graduates successfully land roles in the industry.

“The best part about this module is that the students get to work on the exact same equipment and materials that they would work on if they go to work for Boeing,” Cluphf says. “We hold our students to a very high standard at the school to ensure they are prepared when they graduate to a new career.”

As manufacturers look for properly trained people to fill immediate vacancies, this model provides a tangible solution for the future of upskilling and retraining.

Investment in Educational Facilities

While Edmonds works closely with employers to ensure students receive proper job training, other schools are investing in their facilities to provide students with hands-on training with the most up-to-date technology.

One such school is Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood, Wash., a technical school whose mission is to be responsive to the industry by formulating its curriculum around industry needs.

“We offer a whole suite of programs for current and prospective students, with advanced manufacturing being one of them,” says Claire Korschinowski, dean of instruction at Clover Park Technical College. “Our programs emanate from that school, and we are advancing that work around Industry 4.0 efforts to better meet the needs of those manufacturers that send us their employees to retrain and upskill.”

Clover Park Technical College is implementing its mission in a new, 60,000-sq-ft advanced manufacturing building that houses all of its offerings in one place. Students can actively get their hands on new hardware, instead of just learning about the concepts in a classroom setting.

“The current trade school model leaves the students wanting to hone their skills in an actual manufacturing environment,” Korschinowski says. “Before we invested in the new building, we asked ourselves how we could take a traditional college manufacturing program and make it more appealing, and this was the result.”

Because of its on-campus offerings, Clover Park can now partner with companies looking to upskill and retrain their employees. By working closely with Clover Park’s administration, companies that send their workers to the school will help them receive focused training from a curriculum that aligns with their needs.

As factories evolve and shift, so does the work required. However, most companies don’t have the luxury of time to train employees properly, so they need partners such as Clover Park.

“We operate less as a trade school and more as a partner for manufacturers,” adds Korschinowski. “Clover Park becomes a solution for our partners as they look to keep up with the speed in which manufacturing is shifting and evolving.”

Leveraging Local Talent

Grote Company implemented digital displays to improve visibility, efficiency and communication. Workforce training is a priority for this manufacturer of food slicing and assembly equipment.
Grote Company implemented digital displays to improve visibility, efficiency and communication. Workforce training is a priority for this manufacturer of food slicing and assembly equipment.

As the price of college continues to rise, interest in trade schools and community colleges is undergoing a boom time, with some trade schools seeing record enrollment. The previous allure of a four-year college is not nearly as strong; thus, manufacturers are turning to local institutions to find the next batch of talent.

Grote Co., an industrial food slicing and assembly equipment manufacturer based in Columbus, Ohio, is leaning on local institutions. As for many manufacturing companies, talent is scarce. To continue its success, Grote is filling its talent coffers with committed and capable workers.

“Building our machines requires specialized skill,” says Greg Gavlak, Grote’s director of operations. “In order to find skilled machinists and welders who are able to build our product, we need to look outside of our walls in some cases.”

To fill its roles, Grote began teaming up with a local university, Columbus State Community College, to identify hard-working people who might be a good fit. As part of the process, Grote works with an administrator at the school to identify individuals enrolled in certain education classes, like Intro to Machining. Then, Grote will work directly with the recommended individuals to ensure they are trained properly.

“We try to explore every avenue when looking to fill roles that might soon be open,” Gavlak says. “A lot of our talent is nearing retirement age, so we need to identify the right individuals who are willing and able to come in and take over a new job.”

Local manufacturers can also partner with the state on programs awarding people with credentials that prove they are trained in certain aspects of manufacturing. A company might make payments to send an employee through the training, but they will be reimbursed when the individual completes the program. This keeps talent in-state and in-house so that the manufacturer conserves resources when finding new employees.

Of course, the more traditional route of using interns is also still popular. Grote brings in engineering students from The Ohio State University in the hopes that these students will represent the future of the company.

“We spend a tremendous amount of time and effort filling our pipeline with people that want to be successful right away,” Gavlak says. “Between universities, tech schools and current employees, ensuring we have the proper route to retrain or upskill is of vital importance.”

One of Grote’s concerns is that most programs don’t have strong machining classes. But as the offerings by schools like Clover Park and Edmonds continue to see results, more employers will likely utilize this method to bolster their capabilities.

“It’s difficult to get educational teams and services aligned, so an alliance between us and a local school would pay dividends for both entities,” Gavlak says. “It’s a huge opportunity to pool resources and make our company stronger and local educational institutes better suited to provide the right offerings.”

Embracing New Methods to Overcome the Current Talent Gap

The Center for Advanced Manufacturing at Clover Park Technical College, where the community comes together to gain knowledge and skills in industry 4.0 technologies and applications.
The Center for Advanced Manufacturing at Clover Park Technical College, where the community comes together to gain knowledge and skills in industry 4.0 technologies and applications.

“Talent development is important in all industries, but its importance is especially heightened in an industry rich with technology and complex systems,” asserts Kunz. “When it comes to remaining competitive, I would argue the number one differentiator for a country, community or employer is access to talent. Employers can purchase the same materials, equipment, technology and software, but the secret power is what you do with all of it,” she adds. “It is the ability of the talent using those tools to design, program, operate, maintain and optimize the assets into unique value, higher productivity, better quality, lower costs, etc. To truly maximize capital investments, it is important manufacturers develop their talent.”

Manufacturers are adapting to the current talent gap, and those embracing new methods for upskilling and retraining, such as Grote, are seeing the benefits. By leveraging partnerships that can further the processes within the walls of the plant, and ensuring that right training is implemented, a company will spend less time—and fewer resources—getting employees up to speed.

While most academic institutions are still teaching the same courses that don’t necessarily prepare students for real-world work, trade schools are positioned to more easily shift and amend their curriculum to meet the needs of industry.

Most importantly, those who attend a trade school to receive more training can make more money right away. The work is laser-focused on improving specific skills that the company needs, and retraining current employees is more efficient than finding new workers.

The manufacturing industry needs a paradigm shift in how manufacturers successfully fill roles in the 21st century. Partnerships with local schools and curriculum built out with a company’s specific needs might just be the way forward.

Reskilling & Upskilling 101

Both upskilling and reskilling prevent the need for hiring outside talent. Upskilling strategies involve skill building that helps employees advance within their same roles and career paths, while reskilling provides existing employees with specific skills to perform new tasks or succeed in different positions. When a role becomes redundant or obsolete, leaders have two options: terminate or lay off the employee, or offer that employee reskilling training, which is beneficial to both parties and allows an employer to retain an employee who is a good contributor and culture fit.

5 Steps for Success

According to Continu, an online learning management platform, reskilling and upskilling address expertise gaps and teach employees skills that provide growth opportunities within their current company.
According to Continu, an online learning management platform, reskilling and upskilling address expertise gaps and teach employees skills that provide growth opportunities within their current company.

Reskilling workers is often a better alternative than replacing them. To successfully teach employees new skills, organizations will need strategic planning to implement reskilling initiatives. Here are five steps to get started:

  1. Identify open positions and future needs.
  2. Determine which roles need more focus.
  3. Create a list of reskilling criteria.
  4. Identify individual employee skills gaps.
  5. Select a training style for reskilling workers (online, in person or in conjunction with a local technical school or training academy, etc.).

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