The 'Other' Four-Year Degree

September 16, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — Phil Allen, president of West Michigan Precision Machining, feared the worst when he learned that Grand Rapids Community College’s machine tool job training program would start the fall with only two students this year.

The program had long been a first step into the tool and die industry, an 18-week primer for machining fundamentals. When Allen was looking for an apprentice, his first call was usually to instructor Larry Pierson, who manages the program.

But appearances were deceiving in this case.

“All my (students) went off and got jobs this summer,” Pierson said. “I’m getting calls still.”

That the bulk of his students were hired away halfway through the class should be a sign of the industry’s resurgence — at least for its skilled laborers. Allen’s job shop is a prime example: He has twice as many employees now as he did nine months ago.

Believe it or not, West Michigan manufacturing employment is trending upward. The metro area had roughly 16,000 less jobs in the sector in 2004 than it did three years prior, but the low point of the curve is nearly two years back. According to the state’s office of labor market information, West Michigan has gained manufacturing jobs in every quarter since the third quarter of 2003.

“What many of us were thinking was a structural shift is looking more and more like a cyclical shift, that the economy went through a very hard recession for manufacturing,” said George Erickcek, senior regional analyst for the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

But none of this has swayed Erickcek from his original views of the industry’s employment potential.

“I think of manufacturing in West Michigan as the bedrock of the community,” he said. “Many of the professional services are directly related to manufacturing, but it cannot, like bedrock, be expected to grow.”

Globalization aside, history supports that opinion.

John Layden of Indiana consulting firm Time Compression Strategies notes that U.S. manufacturing employment peaked a quarter century ago, at 19 million in 1979. Steady gains in productivity have eroded that employment, including a 20 percent increase in U.S. industrial output from 1995-2002.

As an example, the steel industry needed 289,000 employees to produce 75 million tons in 1982; today, 74,000 employees produce 102 million tons.

“Manufacturing is not going to go away,” said Don Green, dean of FerrisStateUniversity in Grand Rapids. He spoke on the subject last year to the Michigan Apprenticeship Steering Committee. “But we’re getting to the point where you’ll need highly specialized skills and you’ll have to continually be gaining new skills.”

Mike Kiss is GRCC’s apprenticeship program coordinator. He tracks 500 manufacturing apprentices for the U.S. Department of Labor, a significant drop from the 1,000 of only a few years ago, although that included the construction apprentice program before its move to the Tassell M-TEC.

A common misconception is that the school trains apprentices and then places them in companies, Kiss said. Actually, an apprentice is a full-time employee with a classroom component as part of an extended training program. Usually, a company will require a full year of classes and 8,000 hours on the job before awarding journeyman status to an apprentice.

“The state calls it the ‘other four-year degree,’” Kiss said. “These people are no comparison to someone walking in off the street. Journeymen are incredibly skilled, and they average about $25 an hour. These aren’t the jobs that can be replaced by foreign competition. Manufacturing needs these types of skills, especially the maintenance people that keep the whole thing running.”

This fall, GRCC will offer a class to help students prepare for General Motors’ apprentice entry exam. The automaker will take on 25 new apprentices this year, and the class has room for 50 hopefuls, Kiss said. There is a waiting list.

“In companies, the interest is great,” Kiss said. “Everyone knows it’s the best position in the plant, although I think we’re trying to get more people past that into engineering. On the street, it’s different. People talk about job loss, and it clouds their perception.”

Both Kiss and Pierson note a drop of students from past years, and much more so in Pierson’s program, which enrolls students prior to apprenticeship.

Paul Plotkowski, dean of Grand Valley State University’s Padnos College of Engineering and Computing, believes the K-12 “go to college” message works against skilled trades.

“There are tremendous opportunities, but we’ve been so successful in convincing people they need more education, and everyone thinks that’s college,” he said.

Perhaps, the apprentice-journeyman system is on its way out, suggests Pierson.

“One of the biggest obstacles we’ve had is that manufacturing had really taken a beating. It’s hurt the image of the trade,” he said. “From my perspective, it’s on its way back, but it’s a different form. The day and age of the tooling apprentice is coming to an end.”

The new manufacturing model may look like Cascade Engineering. The plastics manufacturer performs work no less skilled than its machining peers, but uses no apprentices. Instead, all Cascade employees participate in a laddered training program.

According to Gary Kaminski, senior process engineer for Cascade’s training component called the Center of Innovation, Cascade’s program mirrors that of an apprenticeship. Over the course of 12 to 18 months, employees learn skills such as changing molds and crane operation, along with classroom training on the fundamentals of the industry.

In a way, all Cascade employees are hired as apprentices, working toward designation as a level C technician (entry level is A). From there, they pursue further advancement in leadership or technical roles.    

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