Training program readies workers for manufacturing careers


Program participants spend eight weeks in classroom and shop-floor training. Courtesy Expert Technical Training

“Without tool-and-die makers and machinists to build things, our country is going to be in trouble,” said Rob Willsea, recruiting and sales manager for Expert Technical Training.

Willsea said the average age of manufacturing workers is 57 years old, and as they retire, there are not enough workers to fill their slots on the shop floor.

“There aren’t enough kids getting into the industry,” he said.

Expert Technical Training, also known as Expert Tech, hopes to change that by preparing more young people for manufacturing careers and then connecting them with jobs.

Since 2010, the organization has been offering free introductory-level classes to teach people the basics of machining and manufacturing. Students learn about measurements, how to read a blueprint, how to work various machines and other skills during the eight-week course.

“Tool and die and CNC machining has been our focus,” Willsea said.

Willsea said students are typically 18 to 28 years old, although he has had people in their late 30s complete the program, as well.

The classes run for eight weeks and, once completed, Expert Tech helps graduates line up job interviews with local companies. Willsea said Expert Tech currently works with about 20 companies in the area, helping them fill job openings with its program graduates.

“Once we train them, we send them out to the companies for interviews, and when a company hires them, they reimburse us for the training,” he said.

Sometimes the companies hire the workers first and then send them to Expert Tech for the eight-week training program.

Willsea said placement is high, and most people find a job within a month of completing the program.

“I think all but one person got a job out of our program since March,” he said.

He noted all the jobs are full time with a typical starting wage of $12.50 an hour.

“I don’t work with staffing agencies or temp jobs,” he added.

Willsea interviews all prospective students before admitting them into the program. They are required to complete two assessment tests to determine if they are “naturally wired for the industry” and if they have the “aptitude to be successful.”

“I use a test called the AcuMax Index, which tells me if the person is a person who likes to pay attention to detail and is focused on completing jobs. Those are important to us. I also test them on the Wonderlic (Cognitive Ability Test) to make sure they have the aptitude to be successful.”

He said the classes will further determine whether a person has the skills necessary for a career in manufacturing.

“Can you learn what we are teaching you? Can you show up on time for your job? Can you be motivated by what you are doing?” he said.

“They are working on a real, live shop floor where real production is going on amongst them, so is that the type of environment you can see yourself working in for the rest of your life?”

After the initial weeks of learning the basics, students are handed a blueprint for a product and expected to produce it using the machines they’ve been trained on.

Willsea said Expert Tech would offer 11 classes in 2016, with daytime and nighttime options. Classes offered during the day run from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and the evening classes take place from 5:30-8:30 p.m.

He said his current goal is to place 80 students a year within companies.

“In the past three years since I’ve been here, we’ve placed about 190 students,” he said.

He also hopes to extend the program’s partnerships to include more companies.

“My target would be every company in Grand Rapids that has machines,” he said.

Willsea said while tool and die and CNC machining remains the main focus of the training program, he expects to begin doing training in the growing field of mechatronics.

Expert Tech also offers standalone online training videos for experienced manufacturing workers looking to advance in their careers. Topics include foundational skills, CNC, dies, molds and leadership.

Expert Tech also offers a U.S. Department of Labor-approved apprenticeship program.

“They can take classes online, and those count toward their journeyman cards; they count as their related technical instruction,” he said.

The apprenticeship program currently has three career paths: CNC operator, tool-and-die maker and mold maker.

“We have people across the country who are taking some of our molds classes,” Willsea noted.

Willsea said additional standalone online courses are being added for beginners that will cover introductory topics including measurements, blueprint reading and manufacturing safety.

Willsea said Expert Tech’s overall goal is to “fill the skilled-trades gap.”

“If you look at the way people are doing it now, they are stealing a person from another company to their company, which still leaves a hole. We are trying to put new bodies into the hole,” he said.

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