Education Training: Apprenticeship Program Gets Underway

Supply chain technicians are in short supply. A new apprenticeship program may be part of the answer.

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At a conference last fall, about 30 maintenance technicians gathered in a room to talk about their biggest issues. No. 1 on the list was the difficulty in attracting young technicians into the profession. Everyone mentioned the limited number of high schools and community colleges in their areas offering technical education. Experienced technicians, on the other hand, often jumped ship for greener pastures at the drop of a hat. All of which led to some creative recruiting practices. One manager mentioned that he’d started attending Go Kart races on the theory that anyone who could work on a small engine and drive system could be taught to maintain automated materials handling equipment.

Stories like this are familiar to anyone trying to recruit technicians in today’s environment. “Finding talent with the skills we need is tough,” says Tom Luers, senior director of corporate human resources for Intelligrated. “Retaining them in a very competitive market, where competitors are poaching each other’s technicians for a few dollars an hour, is even tougher.”

Maybe it’s time for a new approach. One possible solution is a new Supply Chain Technician (Electro-Mechanical) Apprenticeship developed at Norco College in Norco, Calif., with support from Intelligrated, Walmart and Target. Norco College is also home to the National Center for Supply Chain Automation, which is developing a national certification for the technicians who maintain automated materials handling systems.

The program brings together two important elements: The first is paid, on-the-job training over the course of the apprenticeship coupled with classroom training provided through Norco College or another community college in another part of the country.

The initiative was recently recognized as a registered apprenticeship program by the U.S. Department of Labor, which could be important to companies with a national footprint; Norco College is also working with the California Department of Labor for California companies. With the program approved, participating employers can begin registering candidates, reports Charles Henkels, one of the apprenticeship directors for career and technical education at Norco College. In fact, the first apprentice was registered this past January.

Designing the program

Apprenticeship programs are not new, but they are often misunderstood by businesses and employees, according to Ashley Etchison, another apprenticeship director at Norco College. “People immediately think of an unpaid college internship, which may not provide substantial training, or programs that were tied to a collective bargaining agreement,” she says. Either way, businesses have shied away from them.

That, however, is changing as the U.S. Department of Labor, along with some state agencies, have worked to develop a registered apprenticeship system that meets rigorous standards to encourage business participation across industries. The goal at Norco College was to develop a model program that could be replicated by employers and other community colleges that are teaching supply chain automation and maintenance. Getting input from industry was key to creating a framework.

As part of that process, Norco College reached out to Brandon Andrews, senior manager of corporate learning and development at Intelligrated, one of the first companies to express interest in participating. Intelligrated was asking internally what it could do to develop a pool of skilled talent to meet its needs. When he spoke to his managers, they universally said they needed a system to reinforce the skills that are needed on the job. “That’s why we decided to go the apprenticeship route,” Andrews says. “And, we were attracted to the fact that we could put a certification coming out of the National Center behind it, such as a welder or electrician would have.”

In July of 2016, Andrews and a few service technician leaders from Intelligrated’s Ontario, Calif., office met with Norco’s team and a liaison from the National Center for Automation for a one-day planning session. They outlined the skills needed inside a distribution center as well as in the field, grouped them together into categories and then estimated the number of hours of classroom training and on-the-job experience was required for each task. At the end of the day, they had a framework for a program.

How it works

According to Henkels and Etchison, the program is designed as a paid three-year apprenticeship that combines on-the-job work experience, a curriculum track taught at a community college and progressive wage increases. Apprentices starting from scratch, such as a floor associate who wants to move into maintenance, progress through six periods of apprenticeship—moving from beginner level to advanced technician. Employers have the flexibility to set the wage scale based on the apprentice’s experience and prevailing wages in a local area.

The first two years of the program, the first four periods, are designed for beginning-level technicians. The third year, and the fifth and sixth periods, are for apprentices who have completed the first level and want to advance; for individuals with prior technical experience; or, in the case of Intelligrated, for technicians who want to transition from working in a facility to field technician. Individuals starting at Level 1 will sign a provisional agreement with a defined path of advancement for their apprenticeship. Companies may use the Level 2 program to upgrade the skills of a technician already working in a facility.

Apprenticeship at Walmart

Like many companies with an extensive distribution network and automated systems, Walmart is recruiting skilled supply chain technicians in a highly competitive market. We spoke to Keith Nye, director of logistics maintenance, about Walmart’s participation in the new apprenticeship program.

MHMRO: How would you describe the market when it comes to recruiting, training and retaining technicians?

Nye: There is a general shortage of technicians in the field and coming out of technical colleges. A refocus the past few years has helped but has not closed the gap in need vs. availability of technicians. I’ve attended a number of conferences in the last year, and the shortage of technicians in general has been a significant topic of discussion. As we add to our network and add more automation, we’re facing an increasing need for technicians with this focus.

MHMRO: Why was Walmart attracted to the apprenticeship concept?

Nye: We have worked with the National Center for Supply Chain Automation at Norco College over the past year, which is how we learned about the program. Walmart is working to build relationships with community colleges across the country with a focus on technician training. We want to help the technical colleges continue to place their graduates in productive careers, and Walmart can be part of this objective by helping grow the overall quantity of technicians in the industrial maintenance field. In the apprentice program, the apprentice gets a real-life look into the career they’ll be pursing once they complete the program. We know if we can offer a career that the apprentice will want to be part of.

MHMRO: Do you see other potential benefits from the program?

Nye: We do. I think technicians know there are careers with the system manufacturers, but they may not associate Walmart with an industrial maintenance career. By being part of an apprenticeship, we’ll increase the awareness of a career with Walmart in the industrial maintenance field. Ideally, our apprentices will talk about their experiences in our program when they’re in the classroom, another recruiting benefit. We recently were able to hire two students from the supply chain technician program at Norco College in part because we’d hired one of their classmates. So, we’re already seeing benefits from that relationship.

MHMRO: What role will the apprenticeship program play in your overall technician program?

Nye: We plan to start with one or two technicians in one of our California facilities and then expand from there. Overall, apprenticeships and technical programs at community colleges will represent about 10% to 20% of our recruiting effort. At the same time, we’ll do other things, including recruiting our veterans.

The biggest hurdle to the program is that it may be unfamiliar territory since most companies don’t have experience with an apprenticeship program, according to Henkels. At the same time, the company interested in implementing a program can now work with a local community college with a defined curriculum rather than try to go it alone. What’s more, “loyalty is greater when companies use apprenticeship and productivity increases,” says Henkels, who says that in Canada, where this kind of program is already in place, employers are seeing a $1.47 return on every dollar invested in an apprentice.

Early participants, like Walmart and Intelligrated, expect the program to fill at least some of their needs. “As we continue to expand our network and do more with automation, we need more technicians with a knowledge of automation,” says Keith Nye, director of logistics maintenance at Walmart. “It’s very difficult to teach that in the field.” (see box above).

“There is a talent shortage in this sector of the market,” adds Intelligrated’s Andrews. “At the same time, we think there are workers out there with good building blocks, but don’t yet have the skills we need. That’s why this program resonated with us.”

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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Article Topics

Intelligrated · MRO · Norco College · Training · · All Topics
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