Leadership Skills / Career Development / Industrial Training / Workforce Development / Skills Gap

How to future-proof your plant via training

In this installment of What Works, Southwest Baking turns to accelerated training to better equip fast-rising talent.

Southwest Baking Co., a 53-employee breadmaker in Tolleson, AZ, prides itself on having a lean, efficient, and loyal workforce. The 10-year-old company, which produces more than 2 million cases of bread products every year for a large quick-service restaurant chain, has retained more than half of the workers who were with the company when it opened, general manager Christian Belzunce says.

It’s a figure that Belzunce is eager to share. It also makes him and plant engineer Robert Wroblewski nervous.

“I’m due to retire in 15 years or so,” Wroblewski says. “We’re all going to start retiring. We’ve got to have someone to carry on the company.”

Like a lot of small to midsize manufacturers, Southwest Baking is contending with impending retirements and an impending loss of skill sets and institutional knowledge expected to come with those departures. The company recognized a need to plan farther ahead than the next several fiscal quarters and cultivate new skilled talent – technicians who not only could tackle existing maintenance challenges using the tools the company employs today but who also would embrace the chance to develop and implement new technologies.

Looking at Southwest Baking’s technical labor pipeline, “There wasn’t anybody doing what we do,” Wroblewski says – at least not from the perspective of being able to jump in and troubleshoot a maintenance problem and then maybe tweak a tool or a process to help prevent the issue from arising again. The company recently made a switch from a custom batch system for its dough mixers to a more-flexible batch-recipe management system, and Wroblewski was keen on ensuring that he had a maintenance technician on his team who would be able to support the system’s growth. A rising technician “needs to be an all-around mechanic nowadays,” he says, with mechanical, electrical, and programming aptitude and an understanding of maintenance theory.

Adds Belzunce: “It is essential, and not just in the maintenance area, to maintain stability with the knowledge of our associates and basically look forward at how this company maintains its solid reputation of providing quality to our customers.”

The question was how to effectively train newer employees on a range of skills in a time-efficient way and without creating excessive disruption on the floor. Wroblewski found a solution in an intensive training and employee development program, the Accelerated Skills Academy from Rockwell Automation.

Southwest Baking viewed the academy as an apprenticeship program, Belzunce says. Participants in the 12-week academy receive a combination of classroom and hands-on training focused on four core competencies/roles: electrical, mechanical, controller, and Rockwell Automation’s Integrated Architecture automation system. The range of specific topics covered spans everything from root cause analysis to EtherNet design and troubleshooting, with hard skills included such as pump repair, shaft alignment, lubrication, and electrical troubleshooting. Students receive skills assessments both before and after they complete the program.

Southwest Baking’s first employee to participate in the academy was a young trainee who had worked at the company for four years, mostly part-time: Chris Belzunce, Christian’s son.

“Robert says, ‘He has the brains for this; we’re going to mold him,’ ” the elder Belzunce says.

The company enrolled him in the academy, and Chris attended classes in Phoenix from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Though he was the youngest student in his class, the program wasn’t limited to “green” talent: Chris estimates that the oldest participant was in his mid-50s.

The coursework lived up to its promotion as covering up to eight years’ worth of material in three months, says Chris – “You have to be willing to work,” he notes – but the challenge was worthwhile and helped boost not only his skill set but also his confidence.

After completing the program, Chris was assigned to help repair a failing HMI and worked with a fabricator to design and help build a new labeling machine.

“A year ago, he wouldn’t have been left alone in the plant,” Wroblewski says. Now, the company is comfortable assigning him any maintenance task.

How can a plant determine who will be successful in an intensive, offsite training program such as this one? “You have to know your associates,” Wroblewski says. “You can’t just pick somebody off the floor. You have to know who they are and what’s their outlook. I’m ex-military and it was reminiscent of classes I went through in the Navy. You have to be able to control yourself and do what you have to do.”

Wroblewski notes that taking someone off the floor, even for three months, always is a legitimate concern. But today’s concerns have to be weighed against future demands, he says. “You can’t just worry about the here and now; you have to worry about tomorrow,” he says. “You have to invest a little money in that to make sure (succession) happens properly.”