Manufacturing jobs used to conjure visions of smoke-filled rooms and oiled floors with workers manually operating machines that drilled holes, cut materials and welded joints. Those images are quickly becoming nonexistent in today's high-tech world.
So are those jobs that companies could man with workers fresh off the street.
Today, automation, highly precise specifications and high-tech materials demand equally modern and specially trained workforce, a fact that one Northern Kentucky company was one of the first to recognize.
MAG, a global leader in machining equipment with one of three main U.S. plants in Hebron and its North American headquarters in Erlanger, recognized that necessity early, working with Gateway Community and Technical College to design and implement an apprenticeship program which is about to graduate its first students.
William Weier, the company's manager of human resources, runs the program.
"Manufacturing isn't what it used to be," he says. "I've been in the business 32 years, and it's a much different world than when I started. Now, it's clean rooms, composite materials, high-tech engineering and high-tech assembly."
MAG's highly technical, computer-controlled systems are used in production of some of the most modern of technologies, including aircraft, the majority of which now use composites where steel once reigned.
"I see Stealth plane fly-overs at games and I think 'We're part of that,'" explains Weier. "It's the highest technology there is. At that level, you can't just bring someone in and put them to work. That's where high-tech training comes in."
More than four years ago, MAG started looking at the specialized training needed to operate the next generation of its machining systems and realized that there were no programs available for its workers. As its systems rode the wave of technology, training programs lagged far behind. There were no degree programs at local colleges and no accreditation programs available through other means.
Instead, MAG started designing its own apprenticeship program, tailoring its required courses for working the next generation of machining systems. The result was a series of three- and four-year programs that, upon completion, sees workers state accredited as technicians in assembly, electrical specialists and run-off technicians that are experts on MAG's systems.
"We had to design the courses from the ground up," says Weier. "We consulted with Gateway on the classes. We designed the flow for the programs, what order the classes would be taken in, so that the students would work their way through each part of our systems. And then we had to get our people into the programs."
In 2007 and 2008, MAG started recruiting workers for its apprenticeship program. Seven are currently in the program, working full-time while taking classes part-time through Gateway. The first crop of program participants is about to graduate with high-paying jobs and unlimited career advancement ahead of them, thanks to the training.
According to Weier, MAG's experienced field technicians earn $55,000-$80,000 annually in base pay, though most actually end up with incomes in the six-figure range. Other attractions abound: Because of their expertise, the opportunity for international travel, he says, is staggering.
"We have $80 million of machines going into Russia, a tremendous amount going to China and India," he explains. "They have a chance to travel to all these places to help set up and service the systems. If I had a chance to start over and wanted to travel as part of my job, I'd be hooked!"
Advancement at home is another attraction. One of the apprentice program participants is finishing his training within MAG's engineering department, Weier says, putting his knowledge of current technology to use in designing the next wave of the company's systems. Also, a number of workers have taken advantage of the programs to launch back into academia, using company tuition assistance funds to further their education in other degree areas.
Because of the economic downturn, MAG didn't accept new apprentice program participants in 2009, but hopes to accept new applicants in 2011 and beyond.
Meanwhile, the company is benefiting from the foresight in setting up the apprentice program. Aside from the expertise being fed back into the company, the program also stabilizes MAG's workforce.
"Most of our workers could retire today," Weier points out, indicating most are 55 or older. "That's just a fact. That they're holding on probably says something about the economy, but they could decide to hang it up tomorrow. It's critical for us to be able to replace the knowledge and skills that they have. The apprenticeship program allows us to do that."
SOURCES: William Weier/Human Resources, MAG.
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