Apprenticeship Program Aims to Bridge Skills Gap

Working together with Sinclair Community College and manufacturers, Festo Didactic has introduced the German dual-track education model to the Cincinnati area, combining a two-year mechatronics degree with hands-on experience.

When Festo, a family-owned German pneumatic and electrical automation supplier, chose Mason, Ohio, as its North American hub, it was a strategic decision. With a high density of business in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, it could quickly reach 60 percent of its customer base from here. But like the country as a whole, it faces a considerable skills gap, which Festo saw the need to do something about.

In the Cincinnati area, there are some 30,000 unfilled manufacturing positions, and 130,000 people looking for a job, according to Carolin McCaffrey, head of Learning Center Midwest and chief liaison manager at Festo Didactic. “The gap is expected to become only bigger,” she said. “We’re not in real crisis mode yet, but if we don’t fill that gap, we will be in crisis mode very, very quickly.”

Festo has decided to do something about it. Taking a page from its German playbook, it has brought the experience of German apprenticeship programs into the Cincinnati region, launching a two-year Mechatronics Apprenticeship Program to help employers develop the skills that are missing in the workforce by combining theoretical education, hands-on training and on-the-job training.

Festo Didactic—which has for more than 40 years provided technical education equipment and training—has partnered with Sinclair Community College and five companies in the Cincinnati tri-state area (Art Metal Group, Clippard Instruments, Festo Inc., MQ Automation and Nestlé), to launch the Mechatronics Apprenticeship Program Partners (MAP2). The program—based on the dual-track education model from Germany—gives students the opportunity to learn advanced manufacturing skills while also earning an associate’s degree in mechatronics from Sinclair.

The first group of 11 apprentices has begun training for careers as maintenance, service and manufacturing technicians, and automation specialists. Every week, the apprentices spend one day at Sinclair Community College for classes, one day using state-of-the-art equipment at the new Festo Learning Center in Mason, then three days working at their respective employers. The apprentices are able to take what they learn in class, practice it at the Festo Learning Center (with workstations that simulate a work environment), and use that new knowledge and skill in a real-life work environment.

“In terms of educational modality, the apprenticeship model couldn’t be a better fit for manufacturing,” said Scott Markland, vice president for regional centers at Sinclair Community College.

MAP2 partners have worked together to identify the needs of employers and adapt an existing curriculum at Sinclair accordingly. “We were hearing from local employers about these needs, but we felt like individually we may not have all the pieces to do it alone,” Markland said. “But it was something we could collaborate on based on our common vision.”

Apprentices in the program are not only earning an associate’s degree, but also are gaining practical experience. “We must continue to find ways to train students in the skills and knowledge they need for today and tomorrow’s manufacturing jobs,” said Thomas Lichtenberger, president of Festo Didactic North America. “Apprenticeship programs like this help make sure students get that training early.”

Changing technology demands

Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) also figure into requirements for the future. “We need an educated force and a competent manufacturing force to do this,” said Richard Huss, president of Festo USA.

“Industry 4.0 is changing industry, so we also need to change our education system,” said Tony Oran, director of training and higher education for Festo Didactic. “The fourth industrial revolution requires Qualification 4.0.”

Employers are increasingly looking for mechanical aptitude, skills in automation, the ability to read code and program machines, and electrical skills as well as problem solving and critical thinking skills. “Technology is evolving quickly,” said Jennifer Paine, site management lead at Nestlé. “For us, this is about a commitment to our employees, to train them in the skills they need and to advance their skillset to make our company more competitive.”

It’s important for higher education institutions to be able to prepare skilled workers for new opportunities in advanced manufacturing. “Manufacturing is evolving, which means employers need a workforce who have new types of skills, and educators and trainers need to shift how they are teaching those skills,” Lichtenberg said. “That’s why we started this apprenticeship program—to bring employers and educators closer together and to develop what is needed to be successful in today’s world of advanced manufacturing.”

MAP2 plans to expand the program in coming years as participants sign on more apprentices and more manufacturers join. Storopack, for example, a Festo customer in the Cincinnati area, plans to take on at least one apprentice next year.

The manufacturer of protective packaging recognizes that it needs to start helping itself to take care of the technical skills gap, according to Daniel Wachter, president of Storopack North America. “I’m German; I know the German apprenticeship model,” he said. “And Festo is a great resource for us to start creating an apprenticeship program. We couldn’t do it on our own.”

The apprentices

Five of the 11 apprentices in the first batch are working for Festo. As journalists toured Festo’s logistics and assembly plant in Mason recently, the apprentices there were receiving hands-on training of what they learned in the classroom earlier in the week. “This way, the learning process, the skills development, gets accelerated; 70 percent of the training is hands-on,” McCaffrey said. “On average, the learning curve is an over 60 percent increase in knowledge.”

Chris Cunningham, an apprentice working with Festo, reiterated their weekly schedule and seemed excited about the opportunities ahead of him. “It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I hope to get a lot out of this, which I already do.”

It’s important that the apprentice program addresses the needs not only of the companies, but the apprentices as well—the people behind the technology, McCaffrey said. “I’m pretty confident that these guys will stay with us for a long time, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Still, it’s not always easy to convince parents that a four-year college degree might not be the best path for their son or daughter. “One of our biggest struggles is to explain to the parents that this is really an alternative for young graduates from high school who don’t want to go to college but still have a career at a living wage, McCaffrey said. “It still provides a life and a career.”

At least one mother understood, though. “She said to her son, ‘It’s either this, or you’re going to work at McDonald’s the rest of your life,’” McCaffrey related. “That is the skills gap that we’re trying to close.”

 

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