Bringing life back to apprenticeships

Photo credit: Advanced Manufacturing Research Center

In the spring of 2016, Oregon committed to creating a manufacturing center that combines research and development with workforce training.

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The Oregon Manufacturing Innovation Center (OMIC) aims to plug the skills gap in advanced manufacturing by offering paid apprenticeships to students. It is modeled on the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield, UK, a partnership between Boeing and the University of Sheffield.

Portland Community College will run the workforce training center and has invested $14.5 million in the purchase of the land and construction of the facility. Gregg Meyer, director of OMIC Training Center, talked to Oregon Business about his hopes for reviving the apprenticeship model.

OB: You just returned from Sheffield, UK, where you visited the Advanced Manufacturing Research Center on which OMIC’s training Gregg1facility is modeled. How did that visit influence your perspective on how to develop the Oregon training center?

Meyer: The first thing that struck me as a key difference between their methodology and our traditional model of teaching CTE (career technical education) is their apprenticeship model allows them a deeper-dive focus on a core set of skills. Industry works together to say these skills are what we want all our employees to know. Contrast that with a traditional CTE program: our job has been to provide students, in a compressed amount of time, knowledge in many different types of machines and skills so that when they go into the workforce they can be prepared to work for any company.

In the apprenticeship model, instead of learning a bunch of things and using only 20% of those on the job, students are learning 100% of what they need. When you teach fewer subjects in greater depth, it accomplishes a few things: the repetition builds muscle memory; it also really puts focus on learning as a subject unto itself rather than just learning about things. That is beneficial because technology is always changing. In CTE, whatever students learn in the classroom at some point becomes obsolete. Unless we have taught them how to be life-long learners, they get stuck in their careers.

OB: Will the Oregon training facility have more of a limited focus on teaching students a core set of manufacturing skills?

Meyer: I think so. It doesn’t mean we won’t be able to do other things too. I was initially envisioning the same content that we have today in our machining programs to be delivered in a more contemporary environment. But I think the idea of paring that down really struck me.

In Sheffield their system is fairly highly screened. Students apply online; 50% of them make it to an onsite interview. Out of that, about 75% get to the point where they are eligible to start working with business sponsors. That screening process is something we will have to wrestle with because as a community college we want to have access.

At the Sheffield center they do a comprehensive job of matching students to employers. There are 180 employers wanting apprentices. Under this system, the student starts on the first day of school with a job. If you were a student, how would that affect your mindset? That mind shift and commitment to learning through having somebody sponsoring you from day one is a significant difference to a traditional university program or two-year program. To the best of our ability we will try to do that same model here.

OB: How are today’s workforce training needs different from the past?

Meyer: Before the great outsourcing movement in the seventies, eighties and nineties, there was a continuous influx of young people who would choose a trades pathway over a university pathway. But when we started outsourcing, a lot of people thought: we don’t need these jobs anymore, why should we be training them in school; it is very expensive. School after school was shut down across the country. That created this hole – nobody was learning trades for a 30-year period of time. Now that we are starting either to bring some of that back or understanding the value of being able to train our workforce, there is nobody really left to teach those skills. They are all retiring.

The timing for this training center is perfect. If we don’t catch the retirees now before they go off into the sunset, who will be around to teach the next generation? We have had conversations here about how do we make it easy for those who are on the verge of retirement to transition into teaching.

OB: What equipment will the training center have to train apprentices?

Meyer: A traditional school lab will have machines lined up in a row. That doesn’t match the workplace environment. Most modern manufacturing facilities are cellular manufacturing – you have two or three or four different machines oriented in a circle to match the workflow of a part as it goes through one machine to the next. The configuration of machines might be different to how you see in a traditional school lab. The facility will be 25,000 square feet overall: a combination of lab space and classroom space.

OB: The training facility will be located in Scappoose. When will the facility be ready to accept students?

Meyer: We anticipate fall 2018 to open the facility. We have identified the parcel of land that is adjacent to the Scappoose airport. We are waiting for that property to be annexed to the city before we make the commitment to purchase the land. If it is not annexed into the city, facilities like roadways and utilities become difficult to fund.

OB: Are you looking for partnerships or sponsors from the business sector?

Meyer: What makes the training center run is the notion that students have a sponsor from day one. To the extent that we can convince business owners that this is a good investment — because it costs money one way or the other to acquire and retain a quality employee — we will be looking for industry sponsors who will sponsor apprentices. We have a goal of starting conservative with maybe 25 apprentices. Then we will continue to step up. The training facility in Sheffield has on the order of 250 apprentices.

OB: Do you have businesses on board yet?

Meyer: We have been working with a number of businesses, but at this point we are not in a position of saying we have company X, Y and Z signed up to sponsor. That will have to happen fairly soon if we are to hit our targets.

It is super important that businesses can come in and define what the curriculum is. Rather than us creating a product and selling it to industry, this is industry defining that product. One of the distinctions between a traditional CTE program and the apprenticeship model is businesses are buying loyalty from the student from the very beginning because there is such an active engagement from the employer in the learning process.

OB: You worked for more than 20 years at Hewlett Packard. Why did you decide to do workforce training?

Meyer: Before Hewlett Packard I worked for the Stanford Research Labs for ten years where I served my apprenticeship in machining. That was a perfect example of stacked learning; I learned a trade that fit naturally into mechanical engineering. I worked by and large — two-thirds of my career — at HP in manufacturing. There came a point of time in my career when my kids were grown and I didn’t have the big responsibilities of the corporate paycheck.

I also found from interviewing hundreds and hundreds of engineering students that they were bringing exactly the same content to the table that I learned in school thirty years prior. In the 20 years I was at Hewlett Packard everything changed. And yet when I was interviewing incoming engineering students their skills might have changed at the most 10%. That was a trigger for me. I thought that if I am going to leave and do something else, maybe I can take what I learned in industry and bring that back into academia and influence the training systems.