Programs weld factories, classrooms

Manufacturers take up the training of future technicians to meet need

By RICK BARRETT – From the July 24, 2005 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Mequon – When Andy Vicenzi bought some welding equipment and stayed after work to hone his skills on scrap metal, his employer was impressed enough to start a welding school.

“We had other guys who said they wanted to weld, too, because it paid better and offered opportunities,” said Eric Isbister, chief executive officer of General MetalWorks Corp., where Vicenzi is now training to become a welder.

Welding had become a production bottleneck at the metal fabrication company, which had seen its annual sales more than double from $3 million to $7 million. The company had difficulty finding welders who could pass its qualifications test.

“Most people who graduate from the local tech schools aren’t able to pass our test, even though they think of themselves as certified welders,” Isbister said. “We had to tell one student, who had been through a welding program, that he could start here in another job and work his way up.”

It took three months to develop a curriculum, find an instructor and set the stage for a welding school. But it opened about three weeks ago with five students, all of them General MetalWorks employees.

The students work their regular shift and attend welding classes at the plant on their own time – twice a week, four hours each session. After completing about five weeks of training, they hope to become certified welders.

Vicenzi, 20, has worked at General MetalWorks for 18 months. He started in an entry-level position paying about $9 per hour, and his goal is to learn everything he can about metal fabricating.

“I want to work my way up, make the most money I can, and get a little more respect,” Vicenzi said.

General MetalWorks pays for the instruction and class supplies. But the students must put “some skin in the game,” and prove that they’re motivated to succeed, Isbister said.

“This is for individuals who want to make themselves better,” he said.

Since the students are already familiar with metal fabrication through their jobs at General MetalWorks, it’s easier to teach them welding. Some of them already know how to read blueprints, for example, and they know what goes into making the company’s products.

“The more people can do here, the more valuable they are to the company,” said Mary Isbister, company president. “We have one student who works a split shift so he can attend the welding school. We don’t pay him for the hours he is in class. That’s his time and his investment in himself.”

The students could finish their training and go elsewhere to work, which wouldn’t solve General MetalWork’s problem of not having enough welders.

But hopefully that won’t happen, given the right pay incentives and working conditions.

“If people leave, then it’s because Mary and I are not running a good enough business,” Eric Isbister said.

Dearth of engineers

There’s a national shortage of skilled manufacturing workers, according to the National Association of Manufacturers. Nearly 36% of 3,000 companies polled this year by the association had jobs unfilled because of a lack of qualified applicants.

It will only get worse as older workers retire because there aren’t enough young people in the pipeline to take their place, said Jerry Jasinowski, president of the Manufacturing Institute, a research and education arm of the NAM.

If the current trend continues, the U.S. will face a shortage of roughly 13 million qualified employees by 2020, according to Jasinowski.

“The root of the problem goes deeper than our dysfunctional public school system and the erosion of technical training,” he said. “At its core, our society’s inability to produce enough engineers and skilled manufacturing workers is in part a cultural and perception problem.

“People read or hear about the departure of low-level manufacturing jobs to China and India and think there is no future in manufacturing,” he said. “Moreover, there’s a bias among students to get a college degree in order to pursue a professional white-collar job.”

On the factory floor

Besides General MetalWorks, other Milwaukee-area companies have classrooms in the factories.
Generac Power Systems in Waukesha has a program that allows teens who are struggling in traditional high schools to take the remainder of their classes in a company training center, where they also learn manufacturing skills.

The state Legislature has proposed spending up to $200,000 to develop an education model based on the Generac program and make it available to other companies. The funding is included in the next state budget, which Gov. Jim Doyle could sign this week.

Generac students follow the usual curriculum of math, English, science and social studies. But much of their eight-hour day is spent working shoulder-to-shoulder with adults in a variety of plant jobs where they earn entry-level wages.

On the factory floor, the students are subject to discipline and reduced pay for poor performance or tardiness. If they are late for work or miss a day without an excused absence, their pay is reduced for the entire week, including the paid hours spent in class.

Generac doesn’t expect its students to continue working at the company after graduation. But, like many manufacturers, it insists that job candidates have a high school diploma.

“If we don’t do the socially responsible thing and correct the drop-out rate, then we are limiting our available employee population,” said Dawn Tabat, Generac chief operations officer.

Generac is working with another company, Husco International, in expanding the high school program.

Extensions of machines

Businesses don’t want to become replacements for high schools or trade schools. But they ought to get more involved in education, including efforts to teach young people about metal fabrication, the National Association of Manufacturers says.

“Young people, along with their parents and educators, have an outdated image of manufacturing,” Jasinowski said. “They still think of manufacturing as it existed 50 years ago – repetitive, labor-intensive and unchallenging.”

Some of General MetalWork’s emphasis on training and education comes from the Isbisters’ backgrounds, as well as their need for welders.

Before Eric Isbister became involved in metal fabricating, he was a chief nuclear engineer for the submarine division of General Dynamics Corp., one of the nation’s largest defense contractors.

Before Mary Isbister started with General MetalWorks, she was a chemist and researcher for Pfizer Inc., one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

The problem with some manufacturers is that management views the shop-floor workers as extensions of machines, rather than talented individuals, Eric Isbister said.

And the problem with some workers is they won’t adapt to change, he said.

The starting wage at General MetalWorks is about $9 per hour. Welders can earn more than $20 per hour, depending on their skills and experience.

“At this company, the monkey is on your back to make yourself better,” Eric Isbister said. “Our job, as managers, is to stay ahead of the game and make sure that people have opportunities.”