Building the future workforce

Building the future workforce
By Susan Nord, of SBT
With the shortage of available labor pushing Wisconsin’s unemployment levels to all-time lows, where do companies turn when in need of skilled employees? One way is through internal apprenticeship programs.
Not too long ago, Robert Magnus, co-owner of Wire Specialists, a tool-and-die maker in Menomonee Falls, thought he was in a dying industry. The problem, according to Mary Stanek Wehrheim, president of Stanek Tool Corp. — another tool-and-die maker — was that over the years, the appeal of going into the trades had worn off and had lost some of the respect which Wehrheim and others in her industry believed it deserved.
“Parents — and I’m as guilty as anybody — we tell our children, ‘We want you to go to college,’ meaning a four-year university,” Wehrheim says. “Really, what we mean is, ‘We want you to get a family-sustaining job and get the heck out of the house eventually.’ And people aren’t willing to give the trades that recognition and respect that they deserve.”
To revitalize the tool-and-die industry, trade organizations such as the National Tooling & Machining Association (NTMA), the Tool Die & Machining Association of Wisconsin and the American Mold Builders Association stepped up efforts to recruit employees, especially high school students, to join the trade. And to learn the trade, most new employees become apprentices.
While skilled labor is hard to come by, with unemployment levels at all-time lows, one of the long-standing methods of obtaining skilled workers is to develop them in-house by establishing an apprenticeship program, according to Dorothy Walker, associate dean, manufacture programs – technical and industrial divisions of Milwaukee Area Technical College.
Molding employees through apprenticeships is a long, expensive process for an employer, taking three to five years, depending on the trade.
But Wire Specialists’ Magnus says its not just a matter of developing a company’s work force that should motivate employers to have apprenticeship programs – it’s a matter of supporting the industry.
Apprenticeship programs have roots going back centuries, including the practice of indentured servitude where servants would work years for little or no wages to earn their passage to America.
Today’s apprentices have it a little nicer than their forefathers. In fact, many see their wages at upwards of $20 an hour when they’ve finished their apprenticeships. And many are lucky enough to have their employers pay not only their wages while they work, but also their tuition and book fees as well. [Programs vary, but most require an apprentice to attend classes at a technical college at least eight hours every week or every other week.]
“Small shops or big shops, everyone can help” the industry, Magnus says. “It costs us a lot, as a small shop, but we do it.”
Wire Specialists has eight people on the shop floor, including Magnus’ two partners. The company has three employees who will go through an apprenticeship program, one at a time.
In contrast, New Berlin-based Stanek Tool has 85 employees with six apprentices working on two shifts. But even with those numbers, the firm’s growth has been limited.
“We have a [help wanted] sign outside” of the building at 2500 S. Calhoun Rd., Wehrheim says. “There’s just no point in paying the Journal to put an ad in because you’re just not going to get a whole lot of qualified people.” She says the best way for her company to build its work force is through apprenticeships.
“I don’t remember when we didn’t have an apprenticeship program here,” Wehrheim says. “My dad served as an apprentice here in the ’50s.
“In fact,” she continues, “we had an apprentice when Stanek Tool was started.” Wehrheim discovered the company’s history with apprentices while doing research on the company’s 75th anniversary. Her grandfather founded the company in 1924.
Stanek Tool, a tool-and-die and mold maker, is one of the traditional industries that uses apprentices to build its labor pool.
The tool-and-die apprenticeship program takes approximately five years to complete, or 10,400 hours. Starting out, apprentices receive 50% of the finish-rate in wages. Every company sets its own rate, but most finish-rates are in the high teens [for an hourly rate]. As the apprentice completes intervals of 10% of his total hours, he receives a five-percent wage increase.
Top journeymen in the trade can make more than $25 an hour, putting them well above $50,000 a year when overtime is factored. The lack of skilled workers also affords those tradesmen a measure of job security.
The key to any apprenticeship program is the hands-on training each apprentice receives. Overseeing that training is a skilled worker – one who has usually been through an apprenticeship program. The motivation to train apprentices is to make sure the project is done well. The better the training, the more likely that will occur, according to Steve Krier, a toolmaker at Stanek for the past 17 years.
The hard part is when the skilled worker has to let the apprentice do a project by himself, knowing full well that mistakes will be made.
“I guess I’m kind of reluctant to give someone something that I know has to be right,” Krier says. “I’d just as soon do it myself. Is there a reluctance to train somebody because I’m afraid they’re going to take my job away from me? No, I’m not really concerned about that.
“I have confidence in myself and in my abilities,” Krier continues. “It’s more on the end of making sure something gets done right.”
Another key to an apprenticeship program is communication. Apprentices have to ask questions and make their supervisors aware when problems arise.
“I tell them right out that I don’t want any mistakes hidden from me,” Krier says. “If you make a mistake, let me know right away. I’m not going to holler at you or anything like that. We’ll find a way to fix it or find out what was done wrong in order to correct the mistake.”
Numbers rising
Apprenticeships have been traditionally divided into three categories: industrial, construction and service. Industrial includes most traditional manufacturing jobs, including tool-and-die. Construction includes the plumbing, masonry, carpentry and electrical fields. The service areas that offer apprenticeships include the barber/cosmetology, food and hospitality fields.
Statewide the number of people entering apprenticeship programs is rising. In 1995, the statewide total entering programs was 3,097; by 1997, that number had increased to 3,529; and by 1998, it had increased to 3,707.
The reason for the increase? “There’s a shortage of people at this level of skill due to retirements in these sectors,” says Walker, of MATC. “This is the best process for them to attain skills in the right way. This way, they are being monitored and overseen by journeymen, learning the technical end of the trade on the job site. The best way is to train them through the apprenticeship program.”
Setting up a program
Almost any occupation that involves manual, mechanical or technical skills can set up an apprenticeship program. The first step is to contact the Wisconsin Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations’ Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards. A field representative determines whether or not an occupation or trade qualifies to start a program.
A point to remember is that an apprenticeship program is a long-term commitment to not only individuals – to provide them training over a three-, four- or five-year program – but to the industry and the company itself. Consistency – offering the program in good times as well as bad – has been the key to Stanek Tool’s apprenticeship program and the cost, while some may view it as steep, is well worth it to Wehrheim.
“I’d say the first year, the investment is $30,000 and that includes his salary,” Wehrheim says. “But the salary, you figure at $9 an hour, that’s $20,000 right there. We think it’s a good investment for the company. We couldn’t plant five years from now if we didn’t have an apprenticeship program. We need to train our own (workers).”
Not for job-jumpers
Good training. Good job. Good money. But those in the industry have a word of caution for anyone who might be thinking about making a switch from a currently unpleasant career.
“This is not for people who are fishing around for a career – it’s to master a craft,” says Mike Chetney, training director for the Milwaukee Area Joint Apprenticeship & Training Committee (JATC) for the Electrical Industry.
In fact, the JATC has a list of qualifications an applicant must fulfill in order to obtain an apprenticeship, including reviewing math skills and grades (in algebra, geometry and trigonometry) and an aptitude test.
The commitment is recorded in a formal contract between the employer, employee and the state. Once in the electrical apprenticeship, very few – about 10% – people drop out before their five-year program is up because the screening up front is so thorough, says Chetney.
Chetney theorizes that the number of apprentices in his field has gone up over the years, not only because of retirements, but because the economy’s been so good for so long. “That’s driven construction jobs,” Chetney says. “If there weren’t jobs, we wouldn’t have the need for workers.”
‘Here to learn’
Apprentices obviously get the benefit of on-the-job training through apprenticeship programs. But another benefit they receive is that the employer understands that the learning curve is at play when training apprentices.
Sanford D’Amato, the award-winning chef and owner of Sanford Restaurant, 1547 N. Jackson St., and Coquette Café, 316 N. Milwaukee St. both in Milwaukee, has been involved with MATC’s culinary apprenticeship program since his days at the former John Byron’s restaurant.
“I think the key word is motivation,” D’Amato says. “You’re getting highly motivated people who want to learn and they pretty much know what they’re getting into. It’s a plus for the employer because you have an employee for three years. It’s a plus for the employee because they’re going through a program and getting great experience.
“The thing that’s really nice about the program is there’s not a lot of pressure on them,” D’Amato says. “They’re here to learn. Coming in as an apprentice, you’re expected to make mistakes. If someone were to just come in on the line and make a bunch of mistakes, they wouldn’t last very long.”
And mistakes they do make. Andy Wolf, one of D’Amato’s three apprentices at Sanford’s, says it would be an unusual night if one of the apprentices didn’t “mess up.” As with his counterparts in the tool-and-die industry, Wolf’s found the best way to handle the situation is honesty.
“There’s no way of getting around it,” Wolf says. “You can try to just clean up your mess, but most likely, you better just tell who’s in charge. And they look at that as a good thing. It’s part of the learning process.”
Wolf’s love of the kitchen started when he began washing dishes at a restaurant in his home state of Indiana. One day he came in and the restaurant needed another cook on the line. The camaraderie and teamwork in the kitchen hooked him and he was soon off to Door County cooking at the Inn at Cedar Crossing and Cherry Hills Country Club, both in Sturgeon Bay. He learned of the MATC program while in Door County and decided to move to Milwaukee and enroll in the program.
He began his apprenticeship at the Hyatt and then found himself working next to one of the city’s finest chefs – D’Amato. Wolf had no idea he landed in one of the best kitchens in town, but fellow apprentice, Bryan Phillips, did.
“I was actually kind of frightened,” Phillips laughs recalling his reaction. “But I also have cooked quite a bit in Madison, so I wasn’t really scared. I was well aware of what I can do, I just didn’t know what to expect out of the cooks here.”
Adds Wolf of the situation and his work with D’Amato: “I don’t know if you’ve heard a lot of things about chefs being loud and temperamental, but he’s not like that at all. He understands a lot more. He realizes where you’re coming from.”
Both apprentices admit that even when they’re finished with the three-year program, there’s still a lot to learn. “I feel I haven’t even made a dent in what I’ve been able to learn here,” Wolf says of his nine-month stint at Sanford. Both also think they will stay with Sanford, as long as D’Amato needs them.
The pay for culinary apprentices, unlike the industrial and construction trades, is on the low end of the scale. Both men at Sanford have second jobs to supplement their incomes. Wolf works as a pastry chef at Vinifera at the Passeggio Restaurant, 1716 N. Arlington Place, while Phillips does home remodeling, working for a friend who owns his own business.
“I figured I’d build my own restaurant someday,” Phillips says, referring to his two careers.
Sept. 9, 1999 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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