Protect the future with training and mentorship

Jan. 18, 2007
As the boomer generation ages and leaves a sizable gap in the workforce, it is essential to institute apprentice programs to help fill the void.

Fighting the Maintenance Crisis is more than pumping out a monthly column for Plant Services.  I’ve also been on a four-year crusade piloting numerous approaches to prevent avoidable in my home state, North Carolina.

It’s been a great testing ground to fight the maintenance crisis nationwide. The state has endured serious economic transition due to trade agreements, tobacco industry regulation, and textile and furniture industry migration to third-world countries. It has lost more than 200,000 jobs in 10 years.

With so many legacy companies gone, much of the status quo mentality was removed, so the area opened to fresh ideas. Leaders wondered how to replace the jobs, but many of them in business and government ignored my requests to meet, and those who listened were skeptical of the value of improving industrial maintenance performance levels.

A few years ago, after seeing so many depressing news reports about closing plants and lack of jobs, I had to speak up about the many companies begging to find workers for $15-per-hour to $25-per-hour jobs, so I called local TV and radio stations. Despite thousands of dislocated workers in the job market, companies complained about being unable to locate qualified skilled maintenance technicians. Many said it took 100 interviews to find one qualified candidate. In rural areas, it can be even more difficult.

Local media remained skeptical until we developed the MPACT job fair and uncovered more than 1,000 unfilled jobs at more than 80 area companies in the course of three events. After participating in more than 50 interviews, I’m finally breaking through the resistance.

This past summer, the Workforce Development Board of Guilford County, N.C., challenged the MPACT Learning Center to develop a pre-apprentice training program. Twenty-two weeks later, we graduated 10 multi-craft maintenance technicians. These graduates were selected from 150 applicants and took numerous aptitude tests before being invited to finalist interviews. Many had solid education backgrounds, only to fail the basic math test. Some had good scores but limited self-esteem and didn’t dazzle the panel.

A few got the benefit of the doubt and surpassed expectations. One apprentice, a  busboy who never looked up during his interview, transformed from dud to stud. He inspired not only the other apprentices but many in the community after he shared his story on a local radio station.

The apprentices completed self-study and seminar classes including  Systematic Troubleshooting, Basic Mechanics, Practical Mechanics, Basic Electricity, Electrical Control Troubleshooting and Basic Electronics, Introduction to PLCs and other multi-craft technician classes. They were given an accelerated curriculum to cover in one week for each class what community colleges cover in a semester. Classes were held from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. Many students had to find a second- or third-shift job to cover their bills. As they learned new vocabularies, maintenance processes and exhibited progress, their confidence and sense of self-worth soared.

To ensure the apprentices knew that their efforts would lead to a paycheck, I invited 20 area employers to discuss the qualities they desire in new employees. These sessions were invaluable in tempering expectations of and sharpening attitudes toward this career path.

During one session, an apprentice asked about job-shadowing at a major area employer’s facility. Concerned about his aging workforce, the creative plant engineer developed a work schedule allowing the eager apprentice to follow the veterans two evenings per week and on Saturdays until completing the classes. Then, the company would determine whether or not to bring him on full-time.

The opportunity to be paid to watch and learn was a terrific way to develop a new technician. However, one day the student came to class depressed because the workers had nicknamed him “Blister.” The apprentice had come to work during a shift change and a smart-aleck veteran had said, “Blisters show up after the hard work is done. I think we’ll call you Blister.” The apprentice was unnerved until he met with the plant engineer, who patted him on the back and congratulated him because, years ago, he was the first company Blister. Now, when the vets call the apprentice Blister, he thrusts out his chest with pride and buckles down to show them that he will one day be as productive as they are, if not better.

Both formal training and mentorship are essential components of transitioning from the boomer generation to future workers. More companies need to add more Blisters to their payroll, not only to get more output today, but also to protect their future.

Contact Joel Leonard at [email protected]

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