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Homegrown Talent: Wisconsin Job Shop Carries on Tradition of Apprenticeships

Category: Smartforce By: Catherine Ross, Director of Education, Smartforce Development, AMT - The Association for Manufacturing Technology Nov 8, 2021


JTD Enterprises of Chilton, Wisconsin, can produce more complicated parts than a lot of other Wisconsin job shops, and that gives it a competitive edge when bidding. So, does offering engineering and design advice that improves machinability and cost per part. The secret to its success? Fostering apprentices to ensure a steady supply of journeymen machinists.

A Tale of Three Apprentices

When it comes to cultivating talent, Julie and Tom walk the talk every day. Their efforts change the arc of people’s lives. Such was the case with these three.

  • Bernie, age 39, changed careers from concrete formwork to save his body after a second rotator cuff tear. This father of two young kids literally knocked on JTD’s door after another apprenticeship fell through. Julie didn’t plan on hiring anyone at the time, but she wasn’t going to let someone with Bernie’s attitude and talent walk away.
  • Cassie, age 19, is a young woman who can’t stop moving or learning. Inspired by her father, a welder, she wanted a machinist apprenticeship and the freedom to work in a family-oriented environment.
  • Brandon, age 16, is a youth apprentice and future engineer. He knows learning how to make parts will make him a better engineer — and a great hourly salary that goes towards his ’89 Camaro doesn’t hurt either.

“Out of our current 23 employees, we have 12 journeymen and two apprentices, which is unusual in our industry because a highly skilled workforce is hard to find,” says company president Julie Hoban. “There’s no way that we could compete at such a high level without this talent pipeline. Even with the addition of our first robot for CNC load/unload activity, we still need skilled technicians to operate our manufacturing equipment.”

As OEMs and job shops struggle with labor shortages, JTD Enterprises demonstrates one of the most viable long-term solutions to the challenge of finding and keeping skilled workers: Grow and shape your own talent. That philosophy is the foundation behind machine shop apprenticeships, which have been expanding in popularity over the last few years. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of new manufacturing apprentices increased by 32% in 2020 and 150 new manufacturing apprenticeship programs were established nationwide – a 10% growth from the previous year.

Strong Tradition
JTD Enterprises’ co-founder and manager Tom Hoban realized the importance of apprenticeships more than 30 years ago when he obtained his own journeyman’s card.

Want to get kids interested in machining careers? Show them how CNCs make parts that keep the world moving. This axle housing, machined by JTD, goes on giant snow removal equipment used by many of the busiest U.S. airports.

“My boss at the time didn’t want to send me to school, but I wanted to learn how to run all of the different machines we had,” recalls Tom. “They made all of us who were interested take a test that involved math and reading blueprints. I had the highest score, so they couldn’t deny me the right to begin an apprenticeship, but they cut my pay in half, even though I could run most of the machines. That ticked me off, but I wanted the training. With a Wisconsin journeyman’s card, you can walk into any shop in the country and earn respect.”

Tom took the pay cut, earned his journeyman’s card, and never looked back. Now, in partnership with wife Julie, the company has a long history of hiring talent from the machinist apprentice programs at Lakeshore Technical College (LTC) in Cleveland, Wis., where Tom is on the advisory board. They also draw talent from Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC), which has campuses in nearby Appleton and Oshkosh, as well as other technical colleges.

For more than a century, Wisconsin’s tradition of registered apprenticeships has been a collaborative effort between the state, its technical colleges and manufacturing companies. That’s one of the reasons why Wisconsin is “job shop central” and home to many large OEMs.

www.APPRENTICESHIP.gov is a federal website with portals for employers, educators, and career seekers. Users will find a variety of information ranging from how to set up an apprentice program to finding one.

The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development (DWD) requires a machinist apprentice to complete 7,888 work hours and 432 hours of instruction. Upon completing the program, apprentices receive a journeyman worker card from the Wisconsin Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards and are eligible to transfer 39 credits into a journeyworker technical studies associate degree.

“We cover all the apprentice’s school costs. We also pay them a little more than required by the state, which is 55% of the journeyman’s pay scale, so apprentices can make in the mid-teens per hour while going to school,” says Julie. “We find this results in getting an appreciative, more dedicated employee. We know that, once we invest in an apprentice, there’s a small chance they may leave for another company, but it’s always worth the risk.”

JTD manager Tom Hoban shows apprentices how all design and machine skills come together with his patented replacement clutch component for a Harley-Davidson.

Well-Rounded Education
JTD tracks apprentice work hours in JobBOSS software and reports them to the DWD. Hours are broken down by machine worked, so apprentices receive a well-rounded exposure by the time they complete the program.

“We move our apprentices around the company to get their required 2,200 hours for milling, 200 hours for drilling, 1,800 hours for turning, and 600 hours for grinding,” says Tom. “We also introduce our apprentices to precision measurement, inspection, and welding so they are knowledgeable on all areas of the shop. This gives us the flexibility to move people between machines to meet customer demand.”

While JTD Enterprises has hired apprentices of all ages and backgrounds, educating young people about careers in the machining industry has been a company emphasis. The Hobans regularly participate in local high school career fairs to engage students and teachers by discussing everyday products that use parts they make, from mattress pin components to Harley-Davidson replacement parts to riding lawn mowers and giant snow throwers.

“Some kids have the wrong idea that this kind of work is dirty and brainless,” Julie says. “In fact, machinists need to be intelligent to keep up with technology changes. Our customers send us their most difficult parts, so we need skilled workers. This line of work is appealing to the video game generation once they know more about it.”

Julie connects with shop and technical education teachers to schedule class field trips to the shop and invites students who may be interested in a machining or engineering career. Using that method, she just hired Brandon, a youth apprentice who will be a high school junior.

“While much of the country fixated on post-secondary academics, apprenticeships began a quiet resurgence as a mainstream and inclusive path to fulfilling careers with competitive wages. Developing professionals find all the must-haves in apprenticeship: paid work experience, classroom education, often resulting in college credit, and the accumulation of skills that are in hot demand.” – Catherine Ross, Director of Education, AMT Smartforce Development

“One of my techniques is talking to students about where their parents work,” says Julie. “Because our area of Wisconsin has a strong manufacturing economy, there’s a good chance that we make parts for the company that employs their parents, friends, or relatives. That catches their attention. Then I can explain to them how CNC machines start with a block of metal to create a finished part. They don’t even know how the things they buy in a store come into being. By showing them some of our parts, I can get them wondering how it all started.”

Getting Ahead of Demand
To keep a steady stream of talent, Tom recommends that shops consider apprenticeships to be an important ongoing investment in their businesses.

“Most companies wait until they're slow to invest time in apprentices, but by then it's too late,” he notes. “At that point, they are turning down much-needed work because they don’t have the manpower. Shops need to keep training apprentices all the time, not just when the workload is slow.”

About the Author

Catherine Ross is an advocate for career-tech education and the future of work. In her decade-plus in U.S. Manufacturing, she has directed quality accreditation programs, organized national STEM events and student competitions, and served as liaison and manager for federal workforce initiatives.

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