Apprenticeship Programs Offer Culture, Retention Benefits

Take one look at ads on for manufacturing jobs in San Antonio and you’ll see dozens pop up, posted in just the last few weeks. As with most areas of the country, skilled labor is in demand here.

It’s difficult to grow in manufacturing without the right people in place. At Cox Manufacturing, we are committed to ongoing learning and believe companies need to have apprenticeship programs in place for the long run to help their organization and employees grow.

For background, Cox is a 60-year-old San Antonio maker of precision-cut metal components for everything from aerospace to medical devices. For decades, the company has invested in technology to deliver confidence to our customers.

Cox makes a similar investment in our people, providing formal training, generous benefits and career opportunities like our apprenticeship program. Bill Cox, our president, has built a culture of learning and instills a commitment to continuous improvement in all employees.

The benefits of this investment are clear: a solid pipeline of skilled workers, engaged employees and a competitive advantage. In fact, Cox made Inc. magazine’s 2014, 2015 and 2016 list of the 5000 fastest growing private companies in the United States and continues to build strong relationships with our customers. Since I arrived in 2010, the company size has doubled from 70 to 140 employees.

Apprenticeship Program Snapshot

Determined to build a robust pipeline, Cox implemented a Registered Apprenticeship program, certified by the Department of Labor (DOL) in 2008.

As a world-class company committed to learning, it was important for us to offer an industry-competitive apprenticeship program. That meant being registered and certified by DOL. Guidelines have become stricter related to policy and procedures, creating what is now an industry standard.

To be DOL certified, a company has to meet all the requirements, create a curriculum and submit documentation for approval. Measurement is an important part of the program and everything is audited by the DOL.

Our apprentice program is a three-year program. Requirements include:

  • High school diploma or GED
  • Stable work history for past 10 years
  • Take a personal inventory survey
  • Pass math test
  • Pass background check
  • Pass drug test

Each employee’s experience and competency is assessed and then the individual is placed at the appropriate level. Apprentices can achieve journeyman status in the fourth year.

Related Training Instruction (RTI) is 144 hours a year for three years with 6000 hours of on-the-job learning (OJL). Most of the RTI is via online training by Tooling U-SME with apprentices taking a minimum of eight classes per month to graduate on time.

We also believe in teaching important life skills, so apprentices also receive 15 hours of personal finance training and 30 hours focused on physical wellness.

These classes are off the clock so productivity is not affected. Apprentices get paid one hour of overtime per week to cover this time. The program offers a rolling start, which helps speed up the process. Online classes can be completed at the facility or even at home.

We currently have 34 apprentices in various stages of our three-year program. For instance, three are almost ready to graduate and five entered the program in the last 60 days. Additionally, three apprentices, including myself, have completed the program. Cox is seeing added value already – exactly what we hoped would come from the program.

What are these apprentices doing now? With this technical training, and my experience as a personal fitness trainer, the management team saw that I had the skill set to lead training (the perfect role for me). One of the other apprentices is now a team leader in charge of 15 production machinists; the other is in a team leader/engineer hybrid role supervising four production machinists.

Advantages for Employees

Apprenticeships are a risk-free, debt-free way to get skills and education. It’s a beautiful model: You show up at work, do your normal duties, and the company pays you to learn while you are working.

There are also financial advantages. Journeymen completing the program earn at least $18 per hour, 50% more than minimum entry-level pay of $12 per hour. According to the DOL guidelines, pay increases are given at specific benchmarks.

We offer other rewards as well. Each time an apprentice completes a year of training, in addition to a pay increase, the apprentice earns a cash bonus check ($100 in first year, $200 in second, $300 in third) and an extra 40 hours (five days) of vacation time.

An important advantage is that apprentices come out with DOL credentials, objective third-party credentials recognized at any facility. This becomes a trustworthy, transferable piece of paper.

Additionally, in most cases, the program will transfer to college credit. For those taking college courses, Cox offers 100% reimbursement for tuition and books.

We are now taking this to another level. This past summer, Bill Cox set an agenda to find a college to partner with us in creating a formal path from apprenticeship to college degree. We are in the middle of that process and expect to identify a partner in 2017.

Advantages for the Manufacturer

The biggest advantages for a company implementing an apprenticeship program are related to culture and retention.

Our turnover has been on a downward trend the last two years. It’s an investment in the future.

This type of program helps with employee engagement. The workforce feels like the company is invested when it sees the leaders doing what they say such as providing pay raises on time or giving a bonus with each benchmark.

It also helps us reach younger employees. The average journeyman is around 55 years old and approaching retirement age. An apprenticeship program helps train Millennials and others so they are ready to fill the gap when older employees leave the workforce.

Quality benefits as well. We’ve seen manufacturers who don’t invest in training get set back when a $15,000 or $30,000 part order is rejected. It’s hard to recover from that—and then another hits. Proper training is a critical part of customer satisfaction.

Four Tips

We have learned a lot since we started the program. For companies interested in setting up apprenticeship programs, we offer four tips:

Be proactive. Allocate time and budget for a training coordinator who manages the program. Cox learned there was little progress when a team leader is running a department and managing the program.

Seek expert help. Spend the time figuring out the DOL requirements and how to set up and manage the program. They are a great resource.

Provide benchmarks. Build a plan for each apprentice so they know what to expect related to wage increases. Also, build in some incentive “pops” to break up the monotony (such as extra vacation time after the first year or a bonus at the end of year two).

Get involved in the community. With our President Bill Cox taking the lead, we are heavily involved with local manufacturing groups, educators and others. We share our expertise with the community and offer career opportunities while identifying prospective apprenticeship candidates and other employees.

At Cox, we’ve seen firsthand our apprenticeship program grow to a state-of-the-art model that can compete with other businesses and programs across the country. Other manufacturers have the opportunity to build their own pipeline with a similar apprenticeship program to create engaged employees and a thriving company.

Sean Althaus is the training coordinator at Cox Manufacturing Co. Inc., San Antonio, TX. Althaus oversees 34 employees in the apprenticeship program, the same program he entered himself in 2010 when he joined Cox as a machinist. An Army veteran, Althaus spent a year working in a metal shop in Iraq. He is a San Antonio native.

Credit: Apprenticeship Programs Offer Culture, Retention Benefits
by Sean Althaus – Training Coordinator, Cox Manufacturing Co, Inc.

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