by Nancy Cates, contributing editor
From Washington to Colorado to Texas and across the country, plastics manufacturers struggle with many of the same challenges in workforce acquisition, training and management: low unemployment, baby boomer retirements and a scarcity of potential employees with the essential technical skills. To solve the problem, some have turned to apprenticeships and internships, starting to build relationships with potential employees as early as middle school.
Plastics Business visited with executives from three firms to learn about their companies, their recruiting challenges, their apprenticeship programs and their advice to others who are interested in joining or starting a similar program.
Matt Poischbeg, vice president and general manager of Sea-Lect Plastics, Everett, Washington, is a great believer in apprenticeships. “My mantra,” he said, “is that apprenticeships can be the backbone of the middle class. You are putting individuals into the work world at 16, and they are contributing to society earlier. I’m from Germany and went through that education system, completing two apprenticeships successfully, so I’m very familiar with how the system works.”
Sea-Lect, a sister corporation to Sea-Dog, a marine hardware firm dating back to the 1920s, continues to supply parts for boating and kayaking to Sea-Dog, but the majority of Sea-Lect’s business is consumer products, along with some medical and aerospace components. Sea-Lect encountered staffing problems in 2013, Poischbeg said. “Our key tool and die maker told us he would be retiring. I searched locally, nationally, tried a headhunter – but could not find anybody, so I decided to start an apprenticeship program. I was referred to the Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC), which has a tool and die program.”
AJAC, a nonprofit registered apprenticeship program, provides hands-on learning while participants earn wages. A recent expansion gives high school juniors and seniors a pathway to on-the-job-training that can lead to a journey-level card and college credits, in addition to a high-school diploma.
“When we established the program at Sea-Lect,” Poischbeg continued, “it became clear very quickly that it was what I had been looking for – to increase the skill level of employees as well as increasing the value of the employees to themselves. It allows us to be able to pay them at a higher level as they do more for the company. I wanted to build a pipeline, train a workforce.”
A mandate of the program is having a one-to-one apprentice/mentor relationship. “In the tool and die shop,” Poischbeg explained, “we now have three who are becoming tool and diemakers – one each in the second, third and fourth years. Two of them came directly out of high school. I’m training people who need to learn the job-related skills anyway: I might as well start with people who are excited about learning.”
The AJAC program is overseen by the US Department of Labor, which regulates topics, task requirements and classroom and training hours for each curriculum. Youth apprentices can enroll in the two-year program at age 16. The youth program offers credits toward high school graduation, an adult apprenticeship and college credits. Adult apprenticeships start at age 18 with a high school diploma or equivalent. The programs take apprentices to a journeyman level, which provides national certification to work in any state.
Poischbeg partnered with three local school districts and the local skills center, which works with 15 districts. He became an AJAC committee member and asked the group to develop a process technician apprenticeship program for the plastics industry, which did not exist at any state or federal level.
“Over almost 25 years at Sea-Lect,” Poischbeg said, “I always had several process technicians working. Each had learned the trade a different way, so when we were troubleshooting a mold or improving a cycle, we had several different opinions. None of them had the same base knowledge. So, I thought if we could run them all through the same program, they would have the same approach to troubleshooting. AJAC was receptive. We started the plastics process technician apprenticeship program in 2016.”
How does it work?
In the local program at Everett, adult apprentices go to school four hours a week on their own time and work a full-time schedule. Because the local plastics industry is not large, they are cross-trained in the machinist and maintenance technician classes. Beginning pay is driven by the journeyman rate. “For example,” Poischbeg said, “our journeyman rate is $26 an hour, so their starting wage as an apprentice is about $15. They get a raise about every six months. The apprenticeship program for plastics is four years, while tool and die is five years.”
Once certified as journeymen, Poischbeg said, there is a huge demand for the skilled workers. “Hopefully our apprentices will stay with us. They might enroll in additional programs focusing on mold design or CNC (computer numerical control) programming. If they want to go to school and become an engineer, I support that. There are time limits, but they can take the college credits they earned in apprenticeship – roughly equivalent to an associate’s level – and potentially cut two years off that four-year degree.”
A third option for journeymen is to move on to other shops. “It explains what the word ‘journeyman’ really means,” Poischbeg continued. “In the old days, after certification, journeymen would move from company to company to learn different skills. It was not seen as a negative on the resume, but a positive.”
Poischbeg considers the program a success in more ways than one. “In looking back to 2013, we were challenged to just keep the shop open. We were not building new molds. Most of my moldmakers were old-school. They do beautiful work, but they had missed the learning curve with new technology. The apprentices learn the old-school methods as well as the new technology.
“When the first apprentice started, I promised that when he needed a CNC machine, I would buy one. That’s a $70,000 investment, but that’s exactly what we did. At the end of his second year, he got into CNC setup and programming. He was the one running the machine and teaching his mentor how the machine works. It was an incredible success in my mind. It led to us starting our first in-house mold with an old-school moldmaker and an apprentice working together to build this first very simple injection mold. Now we have completed the second tier of complicated injection molds with apprentices two and three, along with mentors coaching them. We now are building molds in Everett and have mold-building jobs lined up through the end of the year. We are competitive again. Within the next two years, we might be at a 50/50 level of producing our own molds. That means hundreds of thousands of dollars that will not go to China anymore and that we can invest in our own company.”
Rapid growth and difficulty filling technical roles were the driving forces that led Denver, Colorado-based Intertech Plastics to the CareerWise apprenticeship program.
“We really struggled with filling technical roles,” said Jim Kepler, Intertech’s president. “We’ve gone from a $20 million company to a $30 million company, and we’re growing rapidly. We work with recruiting agencies and look all over the country to find moldmakers, engineers, process technicians and other technical personnel. This year, we doubled our recruiting budget.”
Founded in 1980, Intertech began as a small manufacturer of custom injection-molded plastic products. Specializing in medical device components and industrial consumer products, Intertech has two plants, about 110 employees and more than 50 injection molding machines, ranging in size from 55 to 1,500 tons.
“The positions we’ve focused on and benefitted from with the apprentice program have been automation engineers and automation technicians,” Kepler said. “It has given us a huge advantage in keeping our costs down as well as building in process control and quality.
“CareerWise was founded by Noel Ginsberg, the owner of Intertech,” Kepler explained. “The program, modeled after a Swiss apprenticeship program, partners the public and private sectors. It involves career exploration with students at the middle school level. High school students are given the opportunity to go through an apprenticeship program by joining a company and exploring advanced manufacturing, IT, healthcare services or financial services. Freshmen delve into career exploration, and in their sophomore year, apprentices spend three days a week in the classroom and two days working on-site. They go through curriculum that supports the apprenticeship program and credits toward collage – if they want to pursue that path. In their junior and senior years, they spend three days at the workplace and two days in the classroom.”
In Colorado, 125 companies participate in CareerWise. It has spread to 92 companies in New York and another 25 in Indiana. Kepler said the program was intended to be scalable to address the national skills gap in manufacturing and technical services industries.
Intertech currently has eight apprentices, who are chosen through interviews, Kepler said. “It has to align with what the student/apprentice interests are and what fits our needs. We go through the interview process just like we would with a candidate for any job. We’re looking at the soft skills that align with our company values – cultural fit, aptitude, passion and drive – things that are tough to train.”
Robotics team a winner
Intertech also sponsored a high school robotics team and ended up hiring a couple of student apprentices from the team. “When we interview some of these students at 16 years of age, they already have a skill set that we struggle to find,” Kepler said. “They know how to solve problems in a competitive environment. These robotics have vision systems, pneumatic valves, programmable logic controllers – all the electrical circuitry and programming we might use. They see the relationship between what we do and what they have already done for fun. We’re seeing the apprentices add value in the first year.”
Once in the program, each apprentice has a curriculum manager, who oversees progress, and a mentor, who works with the trainee daily on Intertech projects – including dealing with customers and meeting their requirements. “They are laying out not only the design of the work center,” Kepler explained, “but creating the scope of work and specifications, while keeping in mind required standardization. They work with purchasing and maintenance departments to discuss vendor selection and return on investment. They also are involved in training. If they develop a solution, they help create instructions and train the workforce.”
Kepler is enthusiastic about the difference CareerWise has made at Intertech. “The apprentices re-energized our entire company. There’s excitement and passion for implementing new ideas. We are seeing an acceleration of progress on the floor. Even our customers have noticed.”
Hit the ground running
Some of the change might be attributed to Kevin King, one of the first apprentices to come on board in his junior year. “He is unique in that he’s been able to come into the company and hit the ground running,” Kepler said. “He was a leader in the robotics team at the Cherry Creek School District.
“Our niche has been to build and automate process control and quality control systems at the machine,” Kepler continued. “We can guarantee zero defects through process control or vision systems. Kevin has designed a robotic cell that looks for potential defects. He programmed an automation cell for a high-volume product. He designed an entire conveyance cell and added a two-camera system to ensure there are no duplicates, detect missing components and ensure everything is present and in the correct orientation. It also takes a picture of the reference quality code, assigns the file name and stores that information.
“We get about $35,000 to $40,000 in returns,” Kepler explained. “It’s common for end-use customers to say a part isn’t there when, in fact, it is. This system allows us to get the reference code and check the image file to see whether the piece was missing when it shipped. We can ensure that part was there when it left the building. It has helped us assure quality as well as defend return claims.
“Kevin came up with the concept, designed the entire thing, built it and trained everybody on it – he implemented it. We are submitting it to the 2019 MAPP innovation award competition,” Kepler concluded. “We hired him on as a full-time automation technician and are paying for his engineering degree.”
Plastic Molding Technology
Plastic Molding Technology, El Paso, Texas, has been in business more than 45 years, and like others in the industry, is challenged to fill technical jobs. Its 110 full-time employees produce custom plastic injection-molded and insert-molded components for industries including automotive, electrical, industrial and telecommunications, according to Charles Sholtis, PMT’s second-generation owner and chief executive officer.
PMT moved to El Paso from Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 2004. Now, its 60,000-square-foot manufacturing facility houses administrative, engineering, production, warehousing and support activities, including a mold repair facility and a full-service quality laboratory.
“PMT is committed to quality,” Sholtis said. “The company is a registered recipient of both ISO 9001:2015 and IATF 16949:2016 quality certifications. Typically, we mold parts with tolerances of plus or minus 0.001 inch with engineering-grade materials. The positions we find most challenging to fill are higher-skilled jobs, including process technicians, quality technicians, maintenance workers and toolmakers.”
Internships and apprenticeships
PMT’s internship program, initiated in 2015, operates through the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Two years later, PMT re-launched an in-house apprenticeship program.
“Our interns work in production, quality and marketing,” said Mary Sholtis, PMT’s training and development coordinator, “often project-specific. We try to rotate them between departments. PMT hires between three and five interns each year, taking candidates from majors including engineering, supply chain management and business administration. Most internships include a job rotation in each production-related department, along with a department-specific project.”
Interns are involved in the junior or senior year of their bachelor’s program. Apprentices at PMT enter the workforce after high school graduation. The instruction for the apprentice is a blend of hands-on, classroom and computer-aided learning.
“Our apprenticeship program is registered through the Department of Labor,” Mary Sholtis explained. “We have one active registration for a mechatronics technician apprentice. Our apprentice in that role learned about PMT through a high school tour. He now is in his second year of the four-year apprenticeship. We also have an apprenticeship registration in process for a toolmaker, which we hope to launch by the end of this year. Next year, we plan to a launch an additional registration for a process technician apprenticeship.
“Our mechatronics apprentice works in the maintenance department,” she continued, “mentored by the head of maintenance, who was PMT’s first apprentice – way back when we first launched an apprenticeship in Connecticut more than 30 years ago. As the mentor, he is instrumental in this program launch, providing guidance and skills transfer.
“We initiated the internships and apprenticeships with a few goals in mind,” Mary Sholtis explained. “First, we want to capture local talent. We want students to experience the kinds of jobs that are available here in El Paso. Second, we want to address the skills gap by showcasing paths that lead to a fulfilling career with higher wages. Third, we want to engage the next generation in manufacturing, so they can see the industry as the modern, technology-driven career it is today.”
To find the best local candidates for internships, PMT representatives attend job fairs at UTEP. “We usually are looking for someone to fill a role on an ongoing project,” Mary Sholtis said, “so we look for candidates with skills that could contribute to that project. We also require a GPA of 3.0 or above. For our apprenticeships, we visit local high schools, work with the career and technical education liaisons and invite students in for plant tours on Manufacturing Day. GPA is important, and we often look for skills in mathematics and advanced coursework.”
Charles Sholtis emphasized that training has become important at PMT, “not only for our interns and apprentices, but for all employees. PMT has invested in a $55,000 dedicated training room. The space can be used for on-boarding, safety meetings, interviews, company events, class instruction and the like. In 2017, we invested $40,000 in a computer-based training platform for plastic molding injection. We offer all employees this in-house Paulson Injection Molding Training Program. It also is utilized by our apprentice and can be a good orientation and introduction to molding for any intern or new employee.
“We have realized great benefits by having these students on board,” Charles Sholtis said. “They are supporting our staff while learning new skills. It is a win-win situation.”
Interns typically work 20 hours a week for a three-month period. Interns and apprentices send weekly reports to human resources, reinforcing their communications abilities and ensuring that they learn new skills, remain challenged and are held accountable.
“We have found so much talent in our local university system,” Charles Sholtis concluded. “One of our interns from UTEP was an exceptional contributor, and we extended his internship. His enthusiasm and willingness to support PMT convinced us to try to keep him on board. After he graduated with his engineering degree, we hired him as a quality engineer. He now is training to advance to the next level of quality engineering. The ability to find local talent to add to our staff is a great benefit.”
Tips to Businesses Considering Apprenticeships
- Appreciate the value of apprenticeships; a certified program is valuable.
- Build your own pipeline of top-tier talent. New manufacturing jobs are growing steadily. Find a way to transfer knowledge and train new talent.
- Work with the local school system to build a stronger relationship, and create partnerships with the districts’ career and technical education programs to start filling your pipeline.
- Launching these programs can be challenging and time consuming: Consider hiring a training coordinator to help manage the workload of recruiting, weekly follow-up and effectiveness assessment.
- Teach capability: Young people can learn to drive at 16, so they can learn to run a machine on your shop floor.
- Treat apprentices right and pay them competitively so you can keep them.
- Take a look at programs that exist rather than trying to build your own. Consider scalable programs such as CareerWise. Visit https://www.careerwisecolorado.org.
Tips to Communicate About Your Program
- Highlight the benefits of an apprenticeship program: higher wages than for a typical beginning worker, guaranteed pay increases with each successful step of training, potential to earn college credit without accompanying debt, national certification that enables the apprentice to go in whatever direction is chosen, options to complete college remain open.
- Break through stereotypes. Educate the public, advocate for the industry and give tours to show what a modern factory does. Show parents their students can make a decent wage while gaining experience in a high-paying technical field.
- Communicate clearly with youth apprentices about attendance expectations, combining school and sports with work, and general reliability.
- Practice patience and be detailed in training youth who may not know how to correctly use a tape measure or identify a Phillips screwdriver.
- Invest time and energy in mentor training to help skilled staff successfully download their knowledge to apprentices.