by Daniel Moore, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
About five years ago, All-Clad Metalcrafters, a manufacturer in Canonsburg that produces stainless steel pots and pans, allowed its state-registered, on-the-job training program to lapse.
Both the company and its labor union, the United Steelworkers, agreed at that time that the need did not justify the work required to oversee the official program, said Dave Rodgers, senior human resource manager.
Now, a tightening labor market and a recent push by state and federal agencies has prodded All-Clad to restart it.
The company has registered its millwright and electrician apprenticeship programs for its team of maintenance workers. And it is eyeing a third program, an industrial manufacturing technician apprenticeship that would be available to its production workers — the bulk of its employees.
“The pool of skilled candidates is just not there,” said Mr. Rodgers, who oversees a plant workforce of about 200 people.
“It became very apparent that folks liked having the certificate in their hands,” he added. “It’s a piece of paper that, should something happen to their employment here and they go elsewhere, they could say, ‘Hey, I’m qualified to do this job.’”
Apprenticeships — an arrangement by which an employer pays workers a salary as they take training courses alongside working shifts — has become a buzzword for workforce officials hoping to connect job-seekers with employers amid a sea change in skills.
While apprenticeships are common practice in the building trades and at larger companies, officials have seen growing potential for the practice in smaller operations such as All-Clad.
Apprenticeships are “the one thing we have seen as a viable option, especially smaller companies,” said Tom Reed, a managing director at Catalyst Connection, a Pittsburgh nonprofit that helps smaller manufacturing companies.
The gold standard for the model is seen in the construction industry, where a partnership between companies and unions spends millions each year to train workers across 16 building trades. The Pittsburgh region is home to 16 joint apprenticeship training centers, as well as a gleaming headquarters for carpenters, operating engineers, iron workers and electricians.
But if apprenticeships are to work, they can cost the employer time and resources.
And industries that haven’t been using them, such as manufacturing or tech, are likely to have a hard time launching a program from scratch.
“It’s a deal that a lot of manufacturers want to go back to, but they don’t know where to start,” Mr. Reed said. “They don’t have all the resources, and they don’t know where to begin.”
Help for small companies
Catalyst Connection has launched a $100,000 initiative to address that issue called Apprenticeship Pathways, funded by the Appalachian Partnership Initiative — a collaboration between Catalyst Connection, Chevron, the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, the Grable Foundation and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.
The goal is to help companies craft their program by connecting them with state officials, curriculum instructors and funding opportunities to help offset costs, Mr. Reed said.
Companies are not required to register apprenticeships with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, but state-certified training follows basic standards and ensures that skills are transferable to other employers. Registering with the state also opens up access to $2.3 million that the department’s Apprenticeship and Training Office announced in December.
The office, opened by Gov. Tom Wolf in early 2016, oversees 750 programs that employ 15,201 apprentices, the governor's office said this week. That’s up from 10,821 in 2014, according to annual data from the U.S. Department of Labor.
So far, the group has contacted 28 manufacturing companies in the Pittsburgh region, Mr. Reed said, and it is working to start programs at eight of them. All-Clad is the first to launch a program.
“The problem is, with technology comes a whole other set of skills,” said Doug Gutenburr, chief operating officer for DMI Companies.
A Charleroi-based manufacturer of products used in HVAC systems, the company uses machines with a variable degree of technology — from manually bending metal pieces to operating a gigantic automatic laser cutter. The skills needed to service equipment at the plant are not necessarily taught by building trades, which focus on hanging, connecting and installing the ductwork.
The company, employing about 450 workers, hopes to start with two apprentices in a maintenance technician program this fall — and grow to have as many as 10 at one time.
“There is an established need that we need to educate these people,” Mr. Gutenburr said. “So we started down that road, and it is a difficult thing to start.”
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Based in Pittsburgh, Catalyst Connection is an economic development organization dedicated to helping small manufacturers to improve their competitive performance. Catalyst advisors, consultants, and instructors offer training, consulting and administer financial programs that can provide funding for equipment, machinery, or capital improvements. As a nonprofit 501 (c)3 firm, the organization has been supporting Southwestern Pennsylvania manufacturers for more than 25 years. For more information call 1-888-887-7472 or go to www.catalystconnection.org.