Ultra Tool & Mfg. builds its future workforce

Ultra Tool & Manufacturing Inc. started training apprentices from its 1969 beginning so it could fill the future ranks of skilled employees, said president Terry Hansen.

Ultra has a training center for advanced learning, where employees practice the skills needed to work on the plant floor. The program has graduated about 42 apprentices since they started counting in 1973. Only two apprentices haven’t finished the designation. That’s significant, considering a full apprentice has put in 10,400 hours, or about five years of work.

While the company had previously approached two-year tool and die certificate holders graduating from technical school, it now goes directly to high schools to target those who might be interested, Hansen said.

Ultra often sponsors a student’s completion of an abbreviated technical program while they work at the company part time. That way, the employee’s soft skills and cultural fit can be evaluated.

“We’re being very creative with how we approach people entering the market,” Hansen said. “If things go well, we’ll bring him on as an apprentice.”

Ultra Tool employee Jeremy Anderson uses the skills he learned in the apprentice program on the job.

A trainee first learns basic skills like milling steel, making chips and machining a part to a dimension. Then, he or she works with a toolmaker to create precision components for a tool. Next, the apprentice learns CNC programming. And finally, the employee works with a toolmaker to learn the finer points of building a die.

“Even people who finish their apprenticeship after five years still need time to develop,” Hansen said. “Our industry across the country is struggling with finding skilled toolmakers.”

Hansen doesn’t look at the extensive training as a cost, but rather an investment in future talent.

“It’s mostly a mindset,” he said. “It’s a time commitment to make sure they get the training they need.”

The company has two buildings totaling about 73,000 square feet at its Menomonee Falls site. It is also leasing another building for a special military project.

The Ultra Tool apprentices, past and present.

Ultra Tool focuses on manufacturing industrial tooling, contract metal stamping projects using its tools and metal fabrication for projects in which building tooling doesn’t make sense, Hansen said.

Its primary markets served are motorcycle, garden and military. The company’s biggest customers include Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson Motor Co. and Rockwell Automation, as well as Honda Motor Co.

Parts range from satellite dish brackets to window locks and Honda lawnmower parts to Harley brake pedals.

Each job at Ultra is custom made, and demand fluctuates daily, Hansen said. For example, progressive dies are made to create complicated parts from long rolls of metal and fiber optics are used to cut intricate shapes quickly for low volume jobs.

Hansen has been president since 1988 and the company built its current location in 1998. Since he has overtaken operations at the family business, diemaking has become more high-tech. The tools now include electronic components which can sense and protect the operator.

He is planning to expand the working hours at Ultra, including adding a third shift in metal stamping. The move would create about six new positions.

Ultra Tool has annual revenue of about $20 million, and expects about 2 percent growth this year.

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Molly Dill, former BizTimes Milwaukee managing editor.

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