Before Robert Wolf happened upon Pierce Manufacturing’s GED to Work program, he worked in retail and grew accustomed to living on less.
The GED to Work program, a collaboration between Pierce and Fox Valley Technical College, has proved transformative for Wolf. Soon, the 25-year-old will complete his last test toward finishing his GED.
Wolf says the last couple of years had not been kind to him, but entering the GED to Work program gave him new confidence and an opportunity to start not just a job, but a career. As he completes his GED, Wolf works part-time as an assembler at Pierce, mounting seats in fire trucks.
The Fast Forward grant-funded GED to Work program is just one focus at the new Pierce Training Center in Appleton. At the facility, trainers work with new hires and veteran employees to better their skills.
Wolf says receiving the training and taking part in the program have made all the difference for him. The center’s team has invested in him, giving him all the extra work and attention he needs to succeed.
Once Wolf completes the program, he’ll get a full-time job with benefits. Prior to this, he’d never held a job that offered insurance or paid vacations. In addition, he plans to continue his education at FVTC.
“They’ve gone over the moon for me as far as how green I am,” he says. “(Their willingness) to take someone who doesn’t have experience and give that to me is a huge thing.”
Heidi Rose Kehl, product training manager at the Pierce Training Center, says employee turnover and an increasing number of retirements as well as a desire to keep up with technology led the company to create the training center. In the past, Pierce provided its training in an office or on the shop floor. The dedicated facility allows the company to provide more structured and consistent learning, she says.
The center includes a 2,500-square-foot office with two conference rooms and space for students to do computer work as well as a 4,000-square-foot shop with a paint booth for paint training, three weld stations, a wall of tools for tool training and space for assembly and electrical training.
In addition to the GED to Work program, the center serves as the site for a Fast Forward grant program aimed at helping assemblers become electricians. FVTC instructors teach the classes, and Pierce hopes to train 80 electricians by 2020.
Beyond classes for those students, new hires in electrical, assembly, fabrication and maintenance roles use the facility for training. Veteran employees also can use it to learn a new skill, brush up on an old one or address an area of challenge.
Tom Furdek, the center’s director of training, says the staff adjusts the training amount to people’s needs and abilities. When it comes to new hires, the training center team also brings them to the plant to acclimate them, providing a warm handoff and making the onboarding process less daunting. Sometimes people will give up on a job if they feel like they don’t get enough training, he says.
“We want people to feel good when they get started here at the company, not have to worry about the simple things,” Furdek says.
Though Pierce only recently unveiled the center, Furdek and Kehl say its focus and scope will continue to grow. They want to create a mentor program for new employees and add more props for hands-on learning. Soon, plumbers and painters will be able to train at the facility. The team also would like to use it as a place for vendors to come and educate Pierce employees about their products.
Kehl says the center plays a big role in retention. “We don’t want turnover. We don’t (want to) train this person for seven months or a year and now they’re going to go to another company.”
Pierce isn’t alone in its strategy. In the face of an unrelenting talent crunch, manufacturers increasingly are turning to in-house training to more effectively onboard new hires and upskill current employees.
Phil Brown, weld engineer for Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding, says training opportunities help set up employees for success. The Sturgeon Bay company has offered a variety of training options over the years, most recently adding a welding program that assists incoming workers, provides refreshers and recertifications for incumbent workers and trains managers.
“I think one of the things that sets us apart is that for candidates that need to grow their skills or don’t quite meet some of the minimum requirements, we give them that opportunity to come back to our facility and continue to grow,” he says.
That additional assistance can prove to be a powerful hiring tool for an industry that relies heavily on welders and structural steel fitters. The company, which employs 450, can see its workforce balloon to 700 in the upswing of a contract, says Ben Wingert, human resources/labor relations manager for Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding.
The shipbuilder also is dedicated to enhancing the skills of incumbent workers at all levels. Wingert says Fincantieri strives to ensure standardization of performance among welders. This means veteran employees undergo retraining and recertification on all basic weld positions and types of welding.
“This is basically a way to ensure consistency in front-end training but also that the customer on the back end receives the same quality across all welders,” he says.
Fincantieri is dedicated to a promote-from-within culture, but people with a high school or technical college background don’t always bring the requisite skills for supervisory roles, Wingert says. The company created a boot camp for employees who are promoted out of the field. This includes training focused on safety, basic computer skills, communication and active listening.
Wingert says effective communication is key for the company, as many of its projects are one-offs that may stretch on for 24 months at a time. “Every single project is an adventure, and every single project has a lot of learning on it.”
Investing in employees
Like Pierce, Faith Technologies has a dedicated employee training facility. Faith Technologies University, or FTU, opened in Appleton in 2017 with an eye on easing the burden of the talent shortage.
Vance Brison, who became president of FTU in May, says the facility offers a place to grow careers to keep pace with evolving customer and technology needs.
It provides traditional classroom-based learning as well as learning labs that offer realistic simulations.
FTU houses Faith’s apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs. When apprentices come on board, they undergo a weeklong quick-start experience at FTU, gathering foundational knowledge. They then move out to the field, returning to FTU for more hands-on classroom learning from experienced trainers who are journeyman electricians.
Apprentices accumulate five weeks of training annually, which continues for four years. By the end of the experience, they will have completed 20 weeks of training, which helps prepare them to pass their journeyman license test. FTU’s pre-apprenticeship program allows high school seniors to work in their field of study, earning a paycheck and benefits as they progress toward earning an apprenticeship.
Brison says Faith CEO Mike Jansen’s level of investment drew him to accept the role of president of FTU.
“Research (shows) that the capacity to learn, to be trained along with career growth potential, is nearly twice as important to the retention of the employee as a raise,” he says.
FTU began with four classrooms and four learning labs and has since added two hybrid classrooms. In the Fox Cities, the program has grown from 395 apprentices in 2017 to 442 today, accounting for nearly half of the 890 apprentices enrolled across all of Faith’s training locations.
Brison says he’d like to expand FTU to include learning opportunities for estimators, logistics specialists, project leadership, virtual construction designers and other roles within the company’s business group.
A desire to develop talent from within also led Green Bay Packaging to create an in-house training program. Scott Allen, corporate plant systems engineer, says the company has long struggled to recruit and retain highly technical workers for its maintenance department.
Previously, Green Bay Packaging’s 18 corrugated converting facilities across the country followed no organized method when it came to hiring and recruiting. Allen and the leadership team wanted to develop a more structured, stable and coordinated internal training program to upskill valued internal employees.
“We felt we had some really good, solid maintenance departments that had a lot of mechanical aptitude,” he says. “They just didn’t have the highly technical electrical, electronics and automation skills that were required for today’s manufacturing equipment.”
Allen approached Werner Electric Supply and Rockwell Automation to develop the program. It began in 2018 and is offered across several divisions, including 18 converting, two coated products and one folding carton. Two groups of 12, staggered by six months, are participating in the two-year program, with more groups to be added in the future.
The program is made up of employees who wanted to better themselves and contribute to the company in a bigger way. Maintenance workers make up the largest part of the group, which also includes production floor employees, forklift truck drivers and machine operators.
Rockwell Automation employees serve as the electrical instructors, and training modules include eight weeks of electrical training, four weeks of in-house mechanical training and one session devoted to safety.
Allen says Green Bay Packaging is working with Werner and Rockwell Automation to review current curriculum and make changes or additions as needed to respond to changing internal needs and technology. Meanwhile, the internal training program garners positive feedback from employees and now has a waiting list of 12.
David Mineau, account manager for Werner Electric, helped Green Bay Packaging develop its customized training program and says Werner strives to help companies’ employees feel comfortable and safe working on the equipment they’re using.
“I think it’s a huge game-changer for an employer to invest in training. It shows the employer cares about its employees, that it wants them to stay with the company long-term, and that it is willing to invest in them,” he says.