Rockwell Automation Inc. and ManpowerGroup Inc. announced ambitious plans earlier this year to train 1,000 veterans per year for careers in advanced manufacturing. So far, the Milwaukee-based companies have graduated 15 trainees, but another cohort of 36 will start in January and Rockwell is making room at its headquarters to accommodate the program.
“We may not hit the 1,000 as fast as we thought, but we’re on a quest to get to 1,000 per year,” said Mike Laszkiewicz, Rockwell vice president and general manager for the power control business.
The partnership trains participants as instrumentation, automation and control technicians, a role that is among the 10 hardest jobs to fill, according to Manpower research. It is a modification of Rockwell’s engineer-in-training program near Cleveland, Ohio, part of the company’s onboarding process for new hires.
But the trainees aren’t exclusively going to work at Rockwell. Instead, they’ll be taking jobs at Rockwell and Manpower customers around the country.
“We’ve always had a strong training capability … we’ve sometimes been ahead of the curve and it was important for us to provide technical training to our customers,” Laszkiewicz said. “This is different in that we’re producing employees for our customers, but we’re leveraging a core capability that we’ve had for a long time.”
The program may take Rockwell and Manpower a bit out of their traditional comfort zones, but going outside the box is what it takes to address the talent challenges that manufacturers face today.
“That’s what our CEOs challenged us to do,” said Chris Layden, vice president at ManpowerGroup North America.
But why focus the training on veterans?
“They’re an untapped resource,” Laszkiewicz said. “It’s not easy for them always to translate their experience into something the manufacturing industry would be interested in, yet the technologies that they become experienced with in the military really do apply and businesses sometimes can’t see that.”
Layden added that it has quickly become clear that veterans have experience with large industrial computer systems “that are really close to what the market needs.”
“We know that we can continue to tap veterans into this program for this to scale pretty significantly over the next several years,” he said.
Reaching the target of 1,000 veterans trained per year by 2018 may prove difficult, since the companies would have to be training 250 people every quarter and they will start with a cohort of 36 in January. But Laszkiewicz and Layden said even though it is important to reach the target, it is more important to produce qualified graduates.
“We are making that commitment to the veteran that they are going to have a job at the end of this training program, so the training, our selection process, the recruiting process, all of that has to align up and down,” Layden said. “The risk is that we don’t source the right candidate, we don’t have the right match, we don’t have the right training, and we’re guaranteeing they’re going to have a job.”
That risk is particularly important for Rockwell, which is helping to place the trainees with its customers with the promise that they will be productive contributors from the first day on.
“We can’t underestimate the importance of picking the right candidates for the program,” Laszkiewicz said, noting that things like ability to move or handle shiftwork could be as important as being able to handle the training, in some cases. “We’ve got to match up with our customers’ requirements and that’s going to be more important to us than the actual scaling.”
Foxconn Technology Group committed to hiring veterans as part of an agreement signed with Rockwell over the summer, and so far other customers are excited about the program’s potential. Those who visited the first cohort in Ohio came away impressed and Laszkiewicz said the company is already talking to people about trainees who will graduate in April.
“Some of the largest companies in the world that are participating aren’t just looking at one or two candidates, they’re looking at how they participate in the program for the long term,” he said.
Layden said many of the companies that met with the trainees in October felt the candidates could potentially step directly into supervisor or team lead roles right away. He said the view wasn’t really the result of the program but “more, I think, the backgrounds that veterans are bringing in and how easily that can shine through with a little bit of training.”
About two-thirds of the program is focused on technical training, while the other third is used to develop soft skills. Laszkiewicz said that includes giving trainees an idea of what to expect in the physical environment of a factory, how to communicate their ideas, what factors will lead to their success and how to represent themselves.
“We not only provide the technical education, but we help them to speak the language of industry, automation and advanced manufacturing,” he said.
In addition to providing trainees with technical skills, the program offers employers other insights into candidates.
“It validates their desire to learn,” Layden said. The willingness to add more skills will help the trainees in the future, he said.
“The one thing we know about advanced manufacturing today is that it’s going to continue to evolve and the challenges are going to become tougher,” Laszkiewicz said.
Manpower and Rockwell have moved quickly to get the program off the ground. Laszkiewicz said it was still just an idea as recently as March. Since then, 150 candidates have been interviewed, the first 15 have graduated and Rockwell has started building out training space in Milwaukee.
The program will also likely evolve. Layden and Laszkiewicz said customers are already talking with them about the possibility of additional advanced training in the future. There are also other positions or technology partners that could come on board in the future. And it could expand to locations beyond Cleveland and Milwaukee.
“There’s certainly demand in the market for us to train for other roles, to do custom training,” Layden said.
“We see partners that want to participate, we see more and more employers that want to participate, so scaling up and expanding the capability of the program will be an important priority for the future,” Laszkiewicz said.
At the same time, there are an estimated 51,000 technician openings, according to Manpower, so there’s plenty of demand for the program’s original focus, as well.
Layden said the lack of available skilled talent helped bring the two companies together.
“In an effort to help our customer be successful, we think it’s necessary, both Rockwell and Manpower, we think it’s necessary that we help solve this challenge for them,” Laszkiewicz said.
He added the program can work for companies of any size.
“This program works with our Fortune 500 companies and this program works with our smaller companies who know that in order to be competitive, they’re going to have to make investments. You can either complain about not having the people or you can look at your process and how you advance, maybe even automate, and then match up with the skills,” Laszkiewicz said. n