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Need for manufacturing workers sparks joint apprenticeship program

In 2016 Gordon Laabs was looking at some numbers that painted a bleak future for the manufacturing industry.

Over the next 10 years, the industry was slated to lose 30 percent of its workforce. And as baby boomers continued to retire en masse, manufacturers faced a shortage of the talent it needed in younger generations.

Laabs, who is the director of strategic connectivity for Elsner Engineering Works Inc., proposed a plan to create an apprenticeship program to reconnect high school students with the manufacturing industry.

Elsner teamed with three other local companies and, with the assistance of the Hanover Area Chamber of Commerce, submitted a plan for an apprenticeship program that was quickly approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. The model is the first of its kind in the state, Laabs said.

Bridging a gap

Located in the manufacturing hub of Hanover, Elsner Engineering was founded in 1934, specializing in the creation of converting machines for paper, film foil and nonwovens industries. Its machines can be found in over 60 countries.

But, like other companies in the manufacturing industry, it was taking a toll from the bridge that divides high school students from jobs in manufacturing.

This divide has been widened by the elimination of industrial trades classes in high schools and a heavy emphasis on obtaining a four-year college education. Many students today are entirely unfamiliar with the jobs that were a mainstay of previous generations, he said.

“That emphasis hasn’t been the focus for the past 30 years in education,” Laabs said.

For the past 15 years, Laabs has been on a mission to change that, first by partnering with the Hanover Chamber of Commerce to create an introduction to manufacturing program for high school students in the Hanover and South Western school districts, and now by creating a program that he hopes will provide a career track in the manufacturing industry for high school graduates, he said.

Laabs learned about an apprenticeship program in western Pennsylvania, and approached Laird, president of the Hanover Area Chamber of Commerce, with his idea.

Together he and executives from three other companies – KLK Welding Inc., R.H. Sheppard Inc. and Utz Quality Foods Inc. – aired their concerns about the future of local industry and worked out the details of an apprenticeship program that would be entirely driven by a partnership of local businesses, rather than by postsecondary education.

The chamber set the plan in motion in September 2017 by submitting an application to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry that was approved in three months. It was the first program put forth by a chamber of commerce that was accepted in the state, and its business-driven model made it unique, according to Laird. Through it, local industries contribute their own money as an investment in their future. The participating companies recruit and retain talent, while the chamber assumed an administrative role.

After approval, the apprenticeship program received a $200,000 grant to cover startup costs, but the goal is for the program to be entirely funded by the participating businesses, he said.

Hanover Area and South Western school districts quickly came on board, as they had existing relationships with the chamber through other endeavors, and the apprenticeship program was launched in spring 2018.

What the program entails

The new program targets students in participating districts who are at least 16 and in their junior year. They are informed about the program through their teachers, while guidance counselors gear their coursework to better prepare them for the industries in which they are seeking a pre-apprenticeship.

According to Laird, there are three occupational tracks a student may pursue: welding, machinery and mechatronics, a branch of engineering that combines electrical and mechanical systems along with robotics, electronics and other technologies. The occupational tracks were chosen by the participating businesses to fill their most-pressing skills gaps, he said.

Interested students are interviewed by the companies they select and, if chosen, they enter a three-month pre-apprenticeship program that is designed to give them hands-on experience in their trade. If they complete the program successfully, they are guaranteed an interview for a paid apprenticeship position at one of the participating companies, Laird said.

A learning experience

Zach Neighoff, a 2018 South Western High School graduate, was the first student to successfully complete Elsner’s pre-apprenticeship program last spring.

Little did he know that he would also become the first successful machining pre-apprentice in the state. Neighoff graduated with something few of his fellow students had, a job offer, and he currently works for Elsner as an apprentice. Apprenticeships in manufacturing typically last from two to four years, he said.

“You get to do a lot of things with your hands and I really do like it,” Neighoff said.

Neighoff learned about the pre-apprenticeship opportunity from an industrial trades teacher at his high school. As he had already met and impressed Laabs, he was a shoe-in for the program, which began in last March and ended in June.

He was supervised by Elsner employee Derek Roth, who created a schedule that allowed the student to rotate every two weeks among different departments. By the time he completed the program, Neighoff had gained hands-on experience in every aspect of production.

Roth emphasized that the pre-apprentices are taught about safety from the very beginning, and their parents are invited to the facility to see what their children will be doing.

For Neighoff, the program was invaluable in paving the way for his future in an industry he learned little about in school. Roth said that Elsner has tried to attract students to the industry by inviting school groups to tour its facilities and by participating in educational fairs.

“It sparks their interest,” he said.

The pre-apprenticeship program was a necessary next step, he said. Neighoff agreed, saying that he may never have learned about the program or job opportunities in manufacturing if he hadn’t already taken an elective course in the subject. To many of his peers, the job Neighoff goes to every day is a foreign world.

“They have no idea about it,” he said.

This is a situation he hopes will change, and he’s passionate about promoting industrial trades as a viable career alternative to students his age. His advice is to “just try it.”

“They could really like it,” he said.

Looking ahead

This spring, the program will enter its second year. Eight to 12 students have enrolled so far, Laird said, and Abbottstown Industries Inc., Precision Cut Industries and DRI Machine Shop have joined the partnership.

Laird said the strength of the program lies in its flexibility, as it can be adapted to serve other industries in the future, such as health care and information technology. If businesses in those industries choose to participate, occupational tracks will be added to cater to their needs.

Laird emphasized that although educational partners are important stakeholders, the goal of the program is to find talent for local industries and ensure their vibrancy.

“The future is really about what our local employers need and want are willing to invest in,” he said.

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