Make it Proud

By: 
Oct. 6, 2017

The U.S. manufacturing industry is at a crossroads. Some 400,000 jobs went unfilled in August, and more than 2 million could go unfilled over the next decade, according to Deloitte Analytics.

Even more alarming? There could be a worldwide shortage of 40 million skilled workers by 2020, according to industry research conducted by the McKinsey Global Institute.

Meanwhile, more and more manufacturing jobs will become automated in the coming years. Skilled, knowledgeable workers will be needed to operate and service the machines and robotics that could become the backbone of a transformed U.S. economy.

Of course, that won't happen without training — and training won't happen without students and people to train.

Enter AmSkills.

The program, open to high school juniors and seniors, aims to ensure qualified workers are ready to enter the manufacturing industry. Short for American Manufacturing Skills Initiative, the program is the product of an innovative interlocal partnership among Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties, each of which pledged $200,000 annually to support the effort. The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity provided an additional $1.2 million.

Inspired by the apprenticeship training traditions in European manufacturing bastions like Germany and Switzerland, AmSkills' leaders want to change the perception of manufacturing jobs as a last resort for American workers. The program also seeks to win the hearts and minds of American parents and students who tend to view manufacturing as a dead-end career path, and believe an education that ends in anything less than a bachelor's degree is inadequate.

“We run the program as if students are coming to work for an employer,” says AmSkills Executive Director Tom Mudano, who oversees the New Port Richey-based facility that trains students in the program. “They have to clock in and clock out, meet attendance requirements and submit time-off requests.”

Participants in the program, which, unlike its European counterparts, is delivered outside of school hours — something else AmSkills leaders hope to change — spend about 20% of their time on theory and 80% on hands-on projects. After satisfactorily completing a 90-day “career launch phase,” participants are eligible to become an apprentice for a local manufacturing company, while continuing to receive support and guidance from an AmSkills coach. That increases the odds their transition to the workforce is smooth and successful.

A good transition is like gold to hiring executives. “We've learned the hard way what it costs to hire people and then not have jobs done well,” says Viggo Nielsen, an executive with precision parts manufacturer Mettler-Toledo Safeline Inc.

Nielsen is set to become general manager of Mettler-Toledo's sprawling new factory in Lutz, projected to open in early 2018. He's been tasked with hiring some 600 new workers to staff the facility, which will produce metal-detection devices for the food industry.

Nielsen is looking to AmSkills to help provide some of those new employees, whom he believes will enjoy profitable, stable careers that allow for upward mobility in Mettler-Toledo's system. The company, he adds, boasts strong employee retention, thanks to its emphasis on training and development.

AmSkills supporters acknowledge that apprenticeship-system reform faces an uphill battle in the United States, but political support is growing. In June, for example, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that allocates $200 million to expanding apprenticeship programs.

Locally, Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey is a big fan. She's on the AmSkills board of directors and has made several trips to Germany and Switzerland to better understand the European approach to apprenticeship.

“It's been a challenge to instigate [a more European approach to apprenticeship],” Starkey says, explaining the U.S. model is tied to unionized subcontractors like plumbers and electricians, rather than manufacturing positions. “The U.S. manufacturing industry is very disorganized, but more and more people are looking at the European model.”