United front

Organizations, employers join to create press brake operator program

Posted on Jan 14, 2020 :: Plant News
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

Sometimes the most pressing problems require multiple stakeholders to address. That was the case when several regional employers identified a shortage of qualified press brake operators.

Devising a solution took the work and cooperation of the Fox Valley Workforce Development Board, Fox Valley Technical College and several employers — along with the help of a $110,000-plus State of Wisconsin Fast Forward Grant.

Bobbi Miller, business solutions manager and apprenticeship liaison for the FVWDB, says the idea for the program stemmed from several companies lamenting that press brake operators were in short supply. Operators, who produce parts and tools using a press brake, play a vital role for many companies, she says.

“It’s a core part of manufacturing, and they just couldn’t find trained operators,” Miller says. “If they could, they were taking them from others.”

At Oshkosh-based Muza Metal Products, press brake operators touch about 80 percent of the product that goes out the doors, says Matt Funk, human resources director. In addition, when working with steel fabrication, almost every part goes through a press brake in some way.

Muza first tried to address the worker shortage on its own through an in-house training program. When company leaders heard about the grant allowing workers to receive services through FVTC’s Business & Industry Services department, deciding to go that route versus the in-house was a “no-brainer,” he says.

Fast Forward grants are competitive, and the one the FVWDB received required companies to match the grant funds dollar for dollar. Doing so would have been difficult for any one of the small companies on its own, Miller says. The three manufacturers, which in addition to Muza included Wald Wire & Manufacturing Co. and SMC Metal Fabricators, would need to work together.

Funk says collaboration was key to the success of the program. The participating companies were competitors of one another, and the program required all three to get comfortable sharing some trade secrets, he says.

“I think at the end of the day, it boils down to what’s going to make the best program. We all understand that there’s a significant need and there’s a significant gap with regard to the education and experience with press brake operators, and so it just made sense,” Funk says.

Four cohorts of trainees have participated in the program, and 26 people have completed it. The companies selected the participants — incumbent workers in entry-level positions who showed potential for more advanced roles.

The trainees then completed 54 hours of training spread over multiple weeks at FVTC’s Oshkosh campus. That led to another 54 hours of training with a company mentor during classroom training and another 80 hours of intensive mentor training after the classroom training.

Dave Wuestenberg, key account manager for the FVTC Business & Industry Services department, says the school is the go-to source when local companies need worker training, and metal fabrication education is one of its specialties. The college has two Cincinnati press brakes in Appleton and one in Oshkosh.

“Together, we mobilize resources to ensure that our employer partners have the necessary talent to grow their operations,” FVTC Executive Vice President Chris Matheny says of the program.

Miller says the program can help launch workers into a different career trajectory. Some press brake operators can move into engineering assistant or customer service roles, for example, and several program participants shared they planned to complete more training, she says.

The program has been a tremendous success for Muza and the other companies, and Funk says it could serve as a template for future training opportunities, including one it’s looking at creating for welding.

“I think by working together, we’re able to develop a much more well-rounded program that covers the gamut,” he says.