by Liz Stevens, contributing editor, Plastics Business

The skills gap in US manufacturing is a real hurdle for manufacturers looking to expand their workforces to meet increased business opportunities or to make up for the loss of retiring Baby Boomer workers. Enterprising manufacturers are beefing up their apprenticeship programs, connecting with high schools and colleges to help train a pipeline of skilled potential employees, and recognizing that the discipline and work ethic of former military personnel make them excellent employee material.

Some of those enterprising manufacturers have found an additional source of eager applicants with fresh manufacturing training – the state prison systems and reentry support organizations that prepare soon-to-be-paroled inmates and former inmates for work opportunities. To get an idea of the players collaborating to prepare parolees to reenter society with marketable skills, we looked at programs in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.

Ohio: MAGNET in Cuyahoga County

An example of Ohio’s training programs for re-entering citizens is in Cuyahoga County, where a collaboration among national and regional organizations supports manufacturing training and placement with interested employers.

A lead organization in the collaboration is MAGNET, a nonprofit consulting group with a mission to help small and midsized manufacturers succeed. In operation for 30 years, MAGNET recently has taken the lead in a sector partnership in Cuyahoga County to address the skills gap and create career pathways in manufacturing. It added the Access to Manufacturing Careers program to focus on the reentry population.

Adam Snyder, managing partner for Sector Partnership at MAGNET, has a background in plastics manufacturing. Snyder explained that the Sector Partnership plays “an intermediary role for an employer-led, employer-owned solution to the talent gap in manufacturing. Our role is to bring the manufacturing employers together, facilitate them setting their strategies around how they can close the skills/talent gap for manufacturing, and then help align the partners in the community that can contribute to those strategies – including education partners, workforce development partners and public entities.”

In Cuyahoga County, where the program was created in 2019, the manufacturing employers set a strategy to create innovative on-ramps into manufacturing for populations that have been historically underrepresented in the industry. “The primary focus,” said Snyder, “was how do we recruit more African Americans, more women and more young people into manufacturing?”

The manufacturers became especially passionate about reentry as a focus population because, as Snyder explained, “historically, African Americans are overrepresented in the reentry population, so hiring them would help with the employers’ diversity and inclusion efforts. Also, manufacturing has a competitive advantage in that a lot of the healthcare and financial employers here that are looking to hire entry-level talent tend to not hire out of the reentry population or have limitations regarding employing folks who have a background with the criminal justice system.”

Since people who have been in prison often struggle to get high-quality jobs that pay well and offer career advancement opportunities, the manufacturers stepped up to be part of the solution. “Manufacturers asked how to create opportunities for reentering citizens,” said Snyder, “in a way that prepares them and educates them and brings them to the top of the recruitment stack – to the top of the list of applicants.”

The manufacturing employers collaborated with workforce and education partners, including Towards Employment, a nonprofit workforce agency, and PMA, the Precision Metalforming Association, which took the lead to deliver a training program. “The manufacturers,” said Snyder, “are a diverse group that ranges from a 30-person metalworking shop, to an 85-person stamping shop, to a 250-person machining and custom equipment builder, to a 5,000-person international manufacturing company.” Snyder was impressed by the collaborative spirit of the manufacturers who, theoretically, are competing for talent. “They set those agendas aside and asked, ‘How do we raise all boats?’ If we can build a pipeline like this with partners that can sustain it, we’ll all get the talent that we need in the long term.”

The recruitment process involves a number of community organizations and nonprofits in the area that serve the reentry population with support services and wraparound services. While some training programs reach out to the prisons, this program has been limited to former inmates. For the first cohort of trainees, the applicants outnumbered the available training slots almost three to one. The selected trainees were slated to attend the program for four weeks, five days a week, in Cleveland.

The curriculum for the Access to Manufacturing Careers program is about 40% work readiness, with a local workforce agency doing training on core job readiness topics such as workplace behaviors, resume writing, interview skills, conflict resolution and time management. Another 40% of the curriculum is technical learning through PMA’s online learning platform. “The coursework that was selected was hand-picked by the manufacturers,” said Snyder, “to include a manufacturing process overview around stamping, machining and welding core processes that are good to be familiar with, and shop math, blueprint reading, quality systems and metrology.” The remaining 20% is hands-on engagement with the employers; employers visit the class to deliver lessons on safety, the use of quality instrumentation like calipers and micrometers, and process design and quality inspection.

“The final component of the program,” said Snyder, “is an on-the-job training component. Over a candidate’s first 90 days on the job, each of the employers does competency validation with the employee to make sure that what they were taught in training is translated into how it applies in this job. That competency check is the final component toward the credential, which is a certificate issued by PMA.”

This year, the program graduated its first cohort of nine participants. Recruitment for the next cohort is in the works, with applications, screenings and recruitment for a target of 15 new trainees.

Snyder noted that with the success of the program geared for reentry, the participating manufacturers have asked to use the curriculum for a similar program aimed at the young-adult population – 18- to 24-year-olds who are looking for a good job and a solid future.

To learn more about the MAGNET and Access to Manufacturing Careers programs in Ohio, visit

Indiana: Department of Correction Takes the Lead

The Indiana Department of Correction has a Re-Entry Division that includes vocational training programs. In addition, the department has a program called HIRE, the Hoosier Initiative for Re-Entry, which helps reentering citizens transition to the workforce and also offers assistance to employers in the community.

The Indiana Department of Correction offers four manufacturing training programs that award certifications for inmates who complete vocational training: MSSC Certified Production Technician, Welding, CNC Operator and Purdue University’s Skills for Success Program. In addition, web programming training is available through The Last Mile.

The MSSC Certified Production Technician program covers core competencies of manufacturing production at the frontline level. Four modules make up the MSSC CPT training: Safety, Quality Practices and Measurement, Manufacturing Processes and Production, and Maintenance Awareness. These are geared to prepare participants for work as machine operators, material handlers, press helpers, production workers, assemblers, composite technicians, fabricators and more.

The Purdue University Skills for Success Program helps would-be employees learn basic workplace skills to communicate effectively, think critically and work in teams, as well as basic technical skills. In courses led by facilitators with manufacturing experience, students learn a variety of manufacturing-oriented skills via discussion and hands-on activities. The program trains participants for work as machine operators, material handlers, press helpers, production workers, assemblers, fabricators and more.

Inmates who wish to prepare for work in welding participate in an American Welding Society program with nine certification categories – from inspectors, supervisors and educators to radiographic interpreters, welding engineers and fabricators. This program, offered at Madison Correctional Facility, is one of the first correctional welding programs in the US for women.

The National Institute for Metal Working Skills program is geared for future CNC operators, training participants for future work as brake press operators, CNC lathe operators, CNC machine operators, CNC mill operators, machine set-up and more. Participants in The Last Mile program learn programming languages such as HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Trainees also learn teamwork, as well as giving and receiving constructive criticism. This program trains participants for work as programmers, analysts and Java developers.

The HIRE program helps participants prepare for employment with resume development, interviewing and job application assistance, and training in financial literacy, computer literacy and conflict resolution. Community employers can take advantage of HIRE’s virtual job fairs, as well as prerelease candidate reviews and interviews.

To learn more about the programs at the Indiana Department of Correction, visit

Michigan: Two Sites Create Vocational Village

The Michigan Department of Corrections has a skilled trades training program for current prisoners called Vocational Village. There currently are two Vocational Village sites, at the Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia and at the Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson. A third Vocational Village was to be dedicated in 2020 at the women-only Huron Valley Correctional Facility near Ypsilanti, but the schedule has been delayed due to COVID-19 precautions. The site will train women prisoners in computer coding and 3D printing, among other fields.

Vocational Villages currently in operation train prisoners in three manufacturing-relevant disciplines: CNC machine tool and robotics, computer coding, and commercial driver license and forklift operation.

Students in CNC machine tool and robotics training learn to program and operate manufacturing industry machines that fabricate parts and also learn to use manual milling machines and lathes. These students may obtain nationally recognized credentials for the use of HAAS CNC mills and lathes. Prisoners in Vocational Village computer coding training learn coding and front-end web development through a program supported by and The Last Mile.

CDL and forklift operation trainees receive virtual instruction via simulators for driving scenarios and road conditions. They also complete coursework and hands-on exercises in forklift training. Prisoner students complete their over-the-road training with a partnering truck company to become fully licensed. Those taking part in classes at Michigan’s Vocational Village sites put in full days of classroom instruction and training, and then receive state and nationally recognized certifications in their trades.

For more information, visit