Learning while you earn gives a jump start to careers for young workers

At just 23, Mike Field has a life many of his high school classmates who went on to college can’t even dream of yet. He has bought a house. He’s engaged to be married. He even has a new puppy, named Ryder.

“I know college gives you ‘the hardware’ — the diploma — but from what I’ve seen, experience counts too, and I’m learning every day,” he said. “At the same time, I’m earning a paycheck.”

Field chose to go to work at Industrial Sales and Manufacturing (ISM) after high school instead of attending college. Officials from the company, located at 2609 W. 12th St., chose him to continue on in a formal apprentice role last year. As an apprentice, Field spends time in each department of the manufacturing sections of the company, becoming skilled at each area before moving on to the next, said Lori Dever, ISM’s workforce development manager. By the time the apprenticeship is complete, Field will have received a nationally recognized certificate of apprenticeship, coupled with more than a dozen National Institute for Metalworking Skills credentials.

ISM is just one of the Erie County companies participating in the Erie Regional Manufacturer Partnership (ERMP), which was formed in 2014 by a group of 20 local manufacturers to develop and implement a plan to identify, qualify and recruit workers. The organization now has 43 members, said Diane Karlin, ERMP’s project manager.

The need for skilled workers in manufacturing has brought together manufacturing competitors for a common goal, she said.

“We need skilled workers, we need to develop a credentialed workforce. They need to be trained, and there’s no better place to train them than inside our own plants right here,” she said. “Establishing apprenticeship programs starts to put in that pipeline of young workers who gain the skills and competencies they need to step in and replace retiring workers, while also developing the foundation for a great manufacturing career.”

Learn while you earn

Apprenticeships are an important part of the equation when considering how to grow the workforce, said Jim Rutkowski Jr., the general manager of ISM. His company has a goal of adding an apprentice every year. Field is the first.

“An apprenticeship is a valuable tool in that process because it’s a learn-while-you-earn model,” he said. “And it combines on-the-job training with job-related instruction tied to the attainment of national skills standards.”

As part of the efforts to ramp up the number of local apprenticeships, ERMP helped the Greater Oh-Penn Mfg. Apprenticeship Network secure a 5-year $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor in 2016.

In its first year, Oh-Penn, whose footprint spans 14 counties in Ohio and Pennsylvania, exceeded its goal of placing 25 apprentices. Fourteen of those placements are at manufacturing plants in Erie County at companies including small machine shops and larger businesses, Karlin said.

Companies like ISM that hire an apprentice receive a sliding reimbursement for training costs, starting at $6,000. But that reimbursement is just a drop in the bucket in terms of expected return on investment, Rutkowski said.

“I’m expecting to lose 10 percent of my workforce every year for the next 10 years to retirement,” Rutkowski said. “So we’re working hard to get young people into manufacturing and to do that, we have to invest in them and they have to invest in us. If we’re going to be successful in the future, we need those young people here.”

ISM and other local companies introduce students to the idea of a career in manufacturing — and the benefits of apprenticeships — early by taking part in recruitment efforts like inviting high school classes in for tours of the plant and participating in a summer manufacturing camp.

“Part of that goal is to get our young people to look at manufacturing in a different way,” said Dever. “People in the past have viewed manufacturing as dark and dingy, but manufacturing today is high-tech. It’s bright and shiny. We’ve got the latest, most up-to-date equipment. You have to, to remain competitive in the global marketplace. But that’s also the kind of thing that changes young people’s mindsets, and gets them interested in a manufacturing career. The chance at an apprenticeship — where you learn while you earn and really get a jump start on your career — is another recruitment tool.”