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The Modern Apprentice

Leading Alabama manufacturers advance their workforce with apprenticeships crafted for advancing times — from modern tool and die to mechatronics.

John Howard, human resources manager at Weidmann Plastics, works with student employee Phillip McFarlin, who is in the industrial machine system technician apprenticeship program at Southern Union State Community College.

John Howard, human resources manager at Weidmann Plastics, works with student employee Phillip McFarlin, who is in the industrial machine system technician apprenticeship program at Southern Union State Community College.

A number of manufacturing apprenticeship programs have sprung up across the state in recent years in response to increased demand for workers with critical technical skills and the realization that a cadre of veteran employees will be retiring within the next five to 10 years.

Alabama employers and community colleges are working together to develop a richer labor pool through programs that strategically combine technical classroom and lab instruction with on-the-job training. Program designers say that everyone — employees, employers and colleges — wins because apprenticeship programs are specifically tailored to produce desirable employees with proven track records ready to take on highly skilled positions.

Although apprenticeship programs have some similarities with cooperative education (co-op) programs, which match college students with related work opportunities, apprenticeship programs are more specifically designed to meet a local employer’s needs. Apprentices earn while they learn and employers pay some of the cost of classroom instruction. A limited number of slots are available, either through a highly competitive application process or company selection from its current employees.

Wallace State Community College faculty member Joe Hendrix explains the fine points of controller programming. Hendrix was honored as the Alabama Community College Association technical teacher of the year. 

Photo courtesy of CARCAM

Workforce development experts expect the apprenticeship trend only to increase in coming years. “Today, there are many more manufacturing jobs that are so technically demanding that college coursework is needed before someone can even begin to work in an area. It’s also the case that putting that technical knowledge into practice on the plant floor solving real-life issues is invaluable,” says Beverly Hilderbrand, director of the Consortium for Alabama Regional Center for Automotive Manufacturing (CARCAM), which is based at Gadsden State Community College.

CARCAM’s members include 11 Alabama community and technical colleges; automotive manufacturers and suppliers; and local, county, state and federal education and workforce development agencies. The consortium is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education (ATE) division, and helps foster well- developed apprenticeship programs that are registered with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship.

“We first began promoting apprenticeship programs in 2005 and following ever-growing interest have seen an increase in their numbers in recent years,” Hilderbrand says.

Among the best apprenticeships across the state are two four-year programs Federal-Mogul Corp. has established in association with Calhoun Community College. The company and college came together in January 2012 to create one program in industrial maintenance and another in tool and die, to serve Federal-Mogul’s Athens plant, which manufactures sealing systems for the automotive industry.

“Federal-Mogul wanted to develop some of its proven employees to be able to eventually move into higher skilled positions,” says Diane Peck, workforce solutions project coordinator at the college.

The first class, which began in fall of 2012, included three tool-and-die apprentices and four industrial maintenance apprentices. The second class, which kicked off this year, includes six apprentices in each area. Those apprentices work full-time at the plant and attend college part-time, taking classes alongside regular community college students for their coursework.

“It’s a great advantage for our regular students to be attending classes with full-time workers who have practical knowledge,” Peck says.

Calhoun collaborates with six area companies with apprenticeship programs. Because they work with internal candidates, the companies either reimburse college tuition if coursework is completed successfully or directly pay the college for their employees’ classes.

“Companies know they have highly skilled workers who will be retiring and/or anticipate increased demand for such workers. Rather than launching an expensive job search and then waiting to see whether a new employee will work out, they prefer to develop some of their own top performers,” Peck says.

By contrast, the application process for the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. mechatronics apprenticeship program at Shelton State Community College is competitive and not limited to internal candidates. Even so, Mercedes picks up much of the cost of tuition — 100 percent during the final semesters. Students must buy their own books.

Students at Wallace State Community College Hanceville work in a robotics lab as part of their training for Alabama’s high-tech manufacturing industries.

Photo courtesy of CARCAM

Mechatronics is a technical discipline that combines electronics and mechanical engineering.

Several hundred applications came in for 40 slots available in the first mechatronics class, which kicked off in January of 2012. “It’s been a wonderful opportunity for our students,” says Jason Moore, associate dean for training for existing business and industry for the college.

Candidates for the seven-term mechatronics program must first be accepted by the college and then apply to Mercedes-Benz. After a series of assessments, Mercedes selects a limited number of apprentices for part-time work at the company’s production facility. Students work 16 hours a week and take from 11 to 18 credit hours depending upon the semester.

Mechatronics apprentices attend day classes with their cohort group at the college, are provided with hands-on training at the Mercedes-Benz Institute and experience on-site learning at the MBUSI plant. After their coursework is completed, they earn an associate degree in industrial electronics and a short certificate in industrial maintenance from Shelton.

Apprentices who rank in the top 75 percent of their cohort group are promised production positions at MBUSI. Top-performing candidates will move on to the company’s industrial mechatronics maintenance program.

“There’s no down side to the program, even for those who are not hired by MBUSI. Students that might have been working at fast-food restaurants to earn some money are spending the same amount of time gaining experience with a major employer in their field of interest,” says Shelton State’s Moore.

While both the Mercedes and Federal-Mogul apprenticeship programs were designed to produce top-notch employees for their own companies, the industrial machine system technician apprenticeship program at Southern Union State Community College works on a slightly different model. The college is partnering with the East Alabama Industrial Consortium to provide on-going part-time apprenticeship work opportunities with its 12 consortium members. Slots in the program are limited and in demand, even though students are fully responsible for paying their own tuition.

Consortium members include Gambro Renal Products, Weidmann Plastics North America, Donaldson Co., Mando America, Hanwha L & C, Pharmavite, Borbet Alabama, Daedong Hi-Lex, Aluminum Technology Schmid North America, CV Holdings LLC (SiO2 Medical Products and CSP Technologies) and Rexnord Industries – Auburn.

Gadsden State Community College students learn to troubleshoot a robot in a classroom portion of their training.

Photo courtesy of CARCAM

“The companies don’t necessarily have any current or anticipated needs for skilled workers, but they realize they could at some point, and they want to give back by supporting the community in developing a skilled labor force everyone can take advantage of,” says Darin Baldwin, dean of technical education and workforce development at Southern Union.

Currently 16 apprentices are participating in the six-term program, which concludes with an Associate of Applied Science Manufacturing Technology and a number of short-term certificates, including manufacturing technology. No matter what company they work for, apprentices at minimum learn the same set of specific manufacturing tasks. “At the end of the program, they will have a number of transferrable technical skills that will make them desirable employees for companies in or outside of our area,” Baldwin says.

One apprentice from the program’s first class, which kicked off in October 2012, is Phillip McFarlin Jr., who is working at Weidmann Plastics as part of his program. “An instructor I knew from high school recommended I apply for the program, and I’m so glad I did,” he says. “When I come across a problem in class, I can ask one of my fellow workers about it, and when I come across a challenge at work, I can ask an instructor about it. It’s really helpful in better understanding what I’m learning.”

John Howard, human resources manager at Weidmann Plastics, says having McFarlin on site helps develop his skills and provides Weidmann’s maintenance department with a motivated employee. “We may or may not have an opening available for him after he graduates, but we know we’ve giving someone deserving a great opportunity for hands-on training and invaluable work experience,” Howard says.

The apprenticeship program trend bodes well for Alabama’s economic health, says Terry Waters, senior executive director for workforce and economic development of the Alabama Department of Postsecondary Education.

“We are encouraged by the startup of several new apprenticeship and cooperative education programs in Alabama,” he says “Our community college system understands the value of students training alongside journeymen, and we are seeing more of these ‘earn while you learn’ models being initiated in concert with our colleges, having remarkable success.”  

Kathy Hagood is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Homewood.

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