One has a bachelor's degree in business administration, one has a bachelor's degree in elementary education, and one even has a B.E. in Mechanical Engineering. This is the new wave of manufacturing apprentices, specifically, Engineering Apprentices.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor there were over 17,000 active apprentices in Manufacturing, the fourth highest industry sector for apprentices, behind Construction, the Military and Public Administration. Apprentices overall have grown by 42% since 2013. In that year, there were approximately 375,000 and in 2017 there were over 500,000. Clearly there is a strong federal push to support manufacturing apprenticeship programs. The U.S Department of Labor’s American Apprenticeship Initiative awarded over $175 million to 46 public-private partnership to develop and expand apprentice programs in 2017.
Reinforcing what are likely most people’s perceptions of the manufacturing industry, the vast majority of manufacturing apprentice programs are focused on machinists and production workers. Perhaps, the best known is the Industrial Maintenance Technician, or IMT, Apprentice Program. The IMT apprenticeship not only provides a pipeline of production workers for manufacturers, it also has a proven track record of training more efficient workers. A recent study by Case Western Reserve University profiled one company’s apprentice machinists to hires off the street. The comparison indicated at least a 50% rate of return on its apprenticeship program. Apprentices in the same study were more likely to finish their work on time, and were slightly more productive, compared to machinists hired off the street.
These apprentice programs are a valuable resource for industry workers to earn a living wage. They are good for the overall economy of the country too, and should be expanded.
Operator Apprentice Programs vs. Engineering Apprentice Programs
One point that needs some clarity for government officials - and for prospective apprentices - is the touting of entry level training, like the Certified Production Technician (CPT) Program as a Nationally Recognized Credential. It is "recognized,” but as what? Essentially, it is recognized for training a prospective production worker to be more efficient than a high school graduate with no experience, but this is not a pathway to a career in engineering or manufacturing operations leadership positions. The CPT uses online modules to cover topics like safety, measuring and basic maintenance while Engineering Apprentices take college courses in Manufacturing Processes, Metrology, Inspection, Materials Science, Physics, and Computer-Aided Manufacturing, among others.
Engineering Apprentices are not meant to be long-term operators or machinists; the companies need them to be team leaders and problem solvers. Engineering Apprentice graduates have gone on to be Plant Managers, Operations Managers, and Automation Leaders. Some are adjunct faculty for partner colleges and universities currently teaching in manufacturing apprentice programs.
How To Grow Your Own Technician Workforce
I was recently teaching a capstone course in the GE Toolmaker Apprentice Program called Engineering Project and I asked the student who already had a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, "Why would you be in the apprentice program when you already have an ME?" He said, "I had the academics but I needed the application." He understood how to design the machines and what the machines were supposed to do, but he had never worked at one before. He is now a Quality Engineer and can do anything he asks his operators and technicians to do. He has walked that walk.
This is how manufacturers, especially in rural areas like Vermont, are growing their own engineering workforce. It is out of necessity because of the dearth of engineers and engineer technicians. It is also highly cost-effective. Even if they had the luxury of a strong pool of new engineering graduates, we all know the costs of the recruitment and review process for new employees. Add to that the specialized training and learning curve common for achieving a similar level of productivity and your costs have scaled higher.
Engineering Apprentices are hired at a wage slightly above production workers ($26 per hour vs. $18 per hour). And while they commit to 3,000 hours of on-the-job training, 20-40 credits of academic coursework and have rotations throughout all facets of the manufacturing operation, they are also being productive workers as apprentices. In addition, the Engineering Apprentice Program includes a capstone experience that requires students to solve an existing manufacturing problem and demonstrate the return on investment of their solution. It is not unusual for one capstone project to show ROI that covers the cost of the entire apprentice cohort. As a simple example, a team of apprentices designed and fabricated a universal fixture for CMM inspection. They even printed out a prototype on a 3-D printer that one apprentice had in his garage. That universal fixture saved the company over $300,000 a year. Once Engineering Apprentices graduate, they are moved into engineering and leadership positions with commensurate salary and hit the ground running.
Manufacturers are by nature innovators. Now, with the help of local colleges, they are growing their own engineering workforce at all levels using a familiar training format in new and innovative ways. With all aspects of the training benefiting the employer, the employees, and the economy of the community, it is clear that this new generation of workforce development is advancing the manufacturing industry.