Manufacturers Bridge Skills Gap with Apprenticeships

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Dustin Skidmore started his post-secondary education at Youngstown State University, but opted to leave after his first semester, recognizing that college was not for him.

Instead, Skidmore gravitated to the machining trades and joined Kiraly Tool & Die Inc.’s apprenticeship program at age 23.

Three years later, Skidmore is now a journeyman machinist and employed full-time at Youngstown-based Kiraly. “I was able to test out of some classes. I was in the program a little less than three years,” he says.

It’s workers such as Skidmore that manufacturers across 14 counties in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania desperately need – a need that represents the driving force behind the Greater Oh-Penn Manufacturing Apprenticeship Network, a component of the Oh-Penn Manufacturing Collaborative.

The program – made possible by a $3 million U.S. Department of Labor American Apprenticeship Grant –hopes to bring 300 new apprentices on board within the next five years to help build the pipeline needed of highly skilled tradesmen.

While the Oh-Penn Collaborative includes Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties in Ohio, and Mercer and Lawrence counties in Pennsylvania, the grant covers manufacturers in 14 contiguous counties.

In addition to the five Oh-Penn counties, the apprenticeship program encompasses Ashtabula, Portage and Geauga counties in Ohio, and Erie, Crawford, Venango, Clarion, Warren, and Forest counties in Pennsylvania.

The Oh-Penn region has 2,833 manufacturing positions open each year, according to grant documents. But more than 6,686 adults over age 55 are expected to retire from industry over the next 10 years, and just 586 apprentices completed programs through the fourth quarter of 2014. That means more skilled workers are needed to fill the expected vacancies in the industrial workforce.

“Apprenticeship programs in the area kind of faded away,” observes Matt Joing, plant manager at Butech Bliss, Salem. Butech and some other 100 companies in northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania comprise the Oh-Penn Manufacturing Collaborative, a consortium of manufacturers, development agencies and education institutions devoted to re-branding the image of manufacturing and building the workforce of tomorrow.

Joing is a member of the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition and the Oh-Penn apprenticeship committee.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 87% of apprentices are employed once they complete their respective programs, and the average starting wage for these positions is above $50,000.

Most of the low-skilled manufacturing positions disappeared over the years because of manufacturing concerns about shifting production overseas, Joing says, leaving the higher-level positions to be filled in the United States.

Today, meeting the “skills gap” in manufacturing challenges the smaller companies without the financial wherewithal or the time to devote to training new employees.

Often, Joing says, smaller companies are reluctant to fund apprenticeships out of concerns that they would invest a substantial amount of money in training an employee only to see that employee move to another position at either a competitor or a larger company.

A portion of the grant program will help offset the expense of training workers for new jobs in industry, Joing says.

“The first year will give higher incentives and then taper down from there,” he notes. “We’re at the early stages. We’re laying the groundwork and putting the guts of the plan together.”

Butech has a program in place, Joing says, that thus far has worked well for the company. “We try to get the cream of the crop from the career centers,” he remarks.

He tells of a student who entered Butech’s program after completing basic machining courses at the Mahoning County Career and Technical Center. “We were able to offer him an apprenticeship and then hire him,” he recalls. “It’s a win-win since we were able to keep a talented person at Butech.”

Most of the shop work there requires an advanced level of training, Joing says, so apprenticeships are vital to groom some of the best and brightest in the trade and for the company. “This provides a structure for them,” he remarks.

The objective is to train workers in a wide range of disciplines throughout manufacturing. “They work with a journeyman machinist who monitors their development,” Joing says.

Training is conducted both in classrooms and on the plant floor. The Mahoning County Career and Technical Center in Canfield, for example, has two companies – Butech and Quaker Manufacturing, also in Salem – that sponsor apprentices at the center for its classroom work.

“Right now, we have eight in the machinist program,” says Rebecca Harris, program administrator for the adult education program at MCTCC. “We’ve had this program for a long time. Students have to do 217 hours of classroom work per year, and most of the hands-on training is at the company.”

Joing is confident that the Oh-Penn initiative will easily meet the target of 300 positions over the next five years.

So, too, is Kyle Kiraly, controller at Kiraly Tool & Die in Youngstown.

“We’ve signed up to put two apprentices on, one in each of the first two years,” says Kiraly, also a member of the Oh-Penn apprenticeship committee.

“We’re initially looking at two, since we’re just a 16-main shop,” he says.

Kiraly says his company has sponsored an apprentice program since it was founded and one of its employees recently completed his journeyman’s training in less than three years.

Still, it remains difficult for smaller shops to devote the resources required to train an employee to meet the levels of competence required. “We have to sacrifice one employee to train an entry-level employee,” Kiraly says.

The Department of Labor grant will help defray the costs of classroom work and setting up an apprentice program. “It’s a huge monetary benefit for smaller companies,” Kiraly says. “They can push their guys through it so they can become more qualified and highly skilled workers.”

Skidmore, the machinist who recently became a journeyman after completing Kiraly’s apprentice program, says that he trained 8,000 hours – 2,000 hours each on a lathe, mill, and grinder – plus classroom hours before he obtained his credentials.

Skidmore is trained as a machinist, but performs some tool and die work as well at Kiraly, and the level of expertise often depends on the employer. “They teach me anything they think I can handle,” he says, “which is nice.”

One difference with apprenticeship programs moving forward under this $3 million grant, Kiraly says, is training will be more focused on ability and competence than just the number of hours logged.

While trade schools and career centers are proficient in teaching the basic skills necessary for a potential employee to move into a specific industrial trade, much more post-secondary work must be completed before that person is fully prepared.

“A lot of the training is going to be competency-based, which is huge for us because we can understand that a lot better,” Kiraly says.

Pictured: Dustin Skidmore became a machinist apprentice instead of continuing in college.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.