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Getting ahead through hands-on career experience in manufacturing

Demco Manufacturing Apprentice Jeremy Howard

Arguably the best way to prepare someone to enter the manufacturing field is through early training in the workforce. That can come in the form of an internship, cooperative education program, pre-apprenticeship or apprenticeship. These programs provide students with the chance to use the skills they learned at a career and technical school or community college under the direction and guidance of a mentor. 

We spoke with three local manufacturers taking advantage of these programs to learn about their experiences, and how the programs benefit them as well as the students:

Demco Automation

Demco became involved with several local career and technical institutes when Stephen Maund was invited to become a member of their Occupational Advisory Committees which guide the subject matter being taught at those schools. He approached Lehigh Career and Technical Institute to request candidates in the cooperative education program to work at his company, and in 2018 received his first student. Demco also worked with engineering students from local colleges and universities like Lafayette College and Lehigh University.

“Internships and cooperative education programs that we have worked with help to prepare the student through real-world scenarios that are difficult to replicate in academia,” explained Maund. “There is nothing like working through a project, challenge, or simple task when others are depending upon your success. Putting the skills they’ve acquired in school to use is priceless and what employers are looking for in a candidate.”

Co-op students, such as the ones in the Machining Technologies program at LCTI, work on skills that go towards earning NIMS Credits, which are developed skills standards in 24 operational areas covering the breadth of metalworking operations, which are required to complete an accredited apprenticeship. LCTI students work half days, whereas college students work full time in the summer or during the semester. 

“While the students have two primary supervisors, we have a very intertwined team and the students interact with all areas of our business,” said Maund. So far Demco has hired one student from a technical school and two engineering students from colleges as permanent team members. 

When asked if there were any success stories from the co-op program, Maund shared this: “Our first co-op student, Jeremy Howard, has been a real success story. He was a co-op student in the first half of 2018, and we were excited to hire him as a full-time permanent team member upon graduation. We found him to be a real team player that had basic machining skills learned at LCTI. Not only are his abilities and efficiency improving every day, he is now training to be a Machine Builder. This means that he is not only machining the parts that make up our robotic systems, but he is also building and assembling them. Without LCTI’s machining technologies training, he would not have the skills to be a valued professional at Demco Automation.”

B.Braun Medical

B. Braun Medical Apprentice Yamil Negron practices his machining skills.

John Keefe, Mold Shop Manager for B. Braun Medical in Allentown, has spent more than 40 years in manufacturing and in that time, he’s worked with a lot of apprentices. So, he knows how to train them and what makes a good one.

Keefe thinks it was about 20 years ago when he and his colleagues realized that they weren’t able to replace themselves professionally due to the decline in vo-tech enrollment. “It’s getting harder every year to find the right group of students for the program. The jobs are getting more complex than ever before. It’s critical that employees have good math skills, especially trigonometry.”

So the company started a state-approved apprenticeship program in 2017 and works with LCTI, Career and Technology Institute and Bethlehem Area Vocational-Technical School to recruit students. It also applies for state grants to support the apprenticeship program. In 2018 it received $166,000, and is requesting $256,000 for 2019 funds, which would be used in-part for special equipment that the students can use to learn without risking damaging company equipment in the event an error is made. 

The B. Braun program begins with a summer cooperative education program. Students then have the opportunity to move on to the apprenticeship program if they have learned the necessary skills to advance and show potential. Once an apprenticeship is completed, they can become a journeyman, a position which involves 8,000 hours on the job. 

“New hires for tool and die maker or mold maker positions take over a decade of training, mentoring and apprenticeship to be fully trained up,” said Keefe. “A tool and die technician is one of the highest paying positions we have at this site, starting at about $36,000 a year after high school/vo-tech graduation, and there is a reason for that. It’s due to the time and skill that goes into repairing the existing molds and machinery.” 

This past summer’s LCTI and BAVTS co-op program students both did well and have stayed on as new employees. Each apprentice is assigned a mentor who selects the daily work the student will do and closely supervises them. Mentors are hand selected based on their own knowledge base and skills, plus their communication skills to guide a new, often much younger employee. 

“A lot of what we do here isn’t written down anywhere in a book,” explained Keefe. “It comes from experience learned on the job over time. It comes from understanding the level of complexity that goes into this job. That is why it’s critical for an apprentice to have a firm understanding of the basic skills of this trade. They will face change every day and need to be able to adapt for it. We don’t want button pushers. They need to be able to diagnose problems through critical thinking and collaboration.”

B. Braun Machinist Rick Meyle previously owned his own shop before working for the company. Now he acts as a mentor in the apprenticeship program. “I love working with the students coming into the trade and teaching them. I take them under my wing and show them all I can because ultimately they are going to replace me one day.”

B. Braun Medical Machinist and Mentor John Pavlinsky works with Apprentice Jacob Baia.

Meyle is currently mentoring LCTI grad and former co-op student Jacob Baia, who is now an apprentice at B. Braun, being hired as a permanent employee in June 2018. “This trade was a good fit for me because I like math and working with metal,” Baia said. “I especially like precision machining.” Meyle decides what Baia works on each day and does his best to challenge the apprentice with something he hasn’t done before. “I want to make it a work experience that they will want to stick with,” said Meyle. 

GR Electric

Gil Resto founded GR Electric in 2006 and managed to grow his fledgling commercial and industrial electric business through the recession, becoming a limited liability corporation in 2009. Today it has 15-18 full time employees and is based in Whitehall. It’s a merit shop which pays employees based on merit and performance. 

“I want to hire good people. I can teach them the trade if needed, but they have to be good people to begin with,” explained Resto. “I want all A’s on my team, so I deliberately keep it small and focused. After all, I’m not just the boss but I am their mentor too. We have low staff turnover and I’m really proud of that because I think it means that we choose well and treat them good.”

His apprentices start during the summer of their junior year in high school and work full-time. The ones he hires on permanently experience a four-year apprenticeship to become a journeyman, and then move on to becoming a master electrician like he is. Apprentices aren’t just assigned to a single GR Electric employee for mentoring, but instead work with all of the team in a group mentoring approach.

“We push them to see what they can do, to see if they can take direction,” explained Resto. “It costs us $10,000 to get a new employee onboarded and trained up. More of the new hires succeed than fail because we vet them thoroughly on the front end. We like to think long term when we hire someone. It’s less of an ‘I’ and more of a ‘we’ situation.” 

Like Maund, Resto sits on OAC’s for local vocational technical schools. “I want to help them adjust their curriculum before the old technology is replaced so that students are learning what is actually being used in the workplace,” he said. He enjoys talking to students about his business and careers in the electrical industry. Resto also encourages job shadowing for younger students to expose them to what his industry is like so that can determine if it is a good fit for them.

“I think all schools should be teaching leadership skills earlier in students’ educations, not waiting until they are about to graduate so that way, they grow up with it. We also need to do more to help educate parents on what an apprenticeship is really all about and why their child should do one.” 

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