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XL Machine: Jump Starting Careers with Co-ops and Apprenticeships

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On any given day, 86 people at XL Machine work on upwards of 200 different jobs, turning out high-tolerance components for automotive, life sciences and other industries. Boasting 19 horizontal mills, 33 vertical mills, 20 CNC lathes, two mill/turns and a CNC grinder, Modern Machine Shop magazine named XL Machine a 2017 “Top Shops” winner in the category of machining technology.

Chris Orlowski, general manager of XL Machine, knows that staying in “Top Shop shape” requires skilled operators. However, with hundreds of machinists retiring for every handful of new trainees entering the industry, finding new talent goes beyond posting a sign out front that says, “Wanted: Experienced Machine Operator.”

“When I came to XL Machine in 2013, I knew that we needed to initiate an apprenticeship program,” says Orlowski. “With support from our parent company, Burke Porter Group, we attacked that goal very aggressively.”

“The companies within the Burke Porter Group are passionate about educating our young workforce in the STEM fields,” says Betsy Grant, Global Marketing Communications Manager. “We align with IMTS that way, especially the hands-on activities that are part of Smartforce Student Summit. As an exhibitor, we welcome students in our booth. Where better to learn about possible STEM careers than at a company like ours, which is diversified in the automotive, green energy, life sciences and advanced manufacturing industries?”

At IMTS 2018, Burke Porter Group (BPG) is located in the Quality Assurance Pavilion as several of its companies produce balancing and testing equipment (learn more about these companies). The BPG balancing division, Universal Balancing and CIMAT, will be showing demos of their balancers in the Burke Porter Group booth this year at IMTS.

Getting Involved

To recruit students, Orlowski joined the Career and Technical Education (CTE) committee for St. Joseph County and the Education for Employment (EFE) program for Kalamazoo County. Respectively, these are the counties in which XL Machine resides and the county immediately to the north. XL Machine is located in Three Rivers, Michigan, about 30 minutes south of Kalamazoo.

After talking with other manufacturers and determining the skills they require, “We came up with a good curriculum, and then I approached the area’s technical colleges. Within a year and a half, we were able to get approved for a federal apprenticeship program through the Federal Department of Labor. We now have an established relationship with Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC) because they have nearly 20 machines between their lathes and mills. They also teach CNC programming, which is essential for our apprenticeship.”

In addition, XL Machine currently works with Vicksburg High School, where students can participate in a co-operative education (“co-op”) program and work at XL while going to school. With luck and support from the county, more area high schools will join in the future, because the students who have participated couldn’t be more enthusiastic.

The Attraction of Doing

“I love the hands-on experience and how many different types of jobs you can run on a single machine,” says Rich Gillies. He graduated in May 2017 from Vicksburg High School and now works as a machinist, setting up and running a vertical CNC mill. Occasionally, he checks part tolerances on one of XL Machine’s 10 CMMs.

Gillies learned about the co-op program from a high school friend taking the Computerized Manufacturing class, and his friend finally convinced him to join. Before starting, he “knew next to nothing” about machining. Now, every day is a learning experience, and he is hooked.

“I can take almost any type of metal and turn it into something amazing,” he says. “I’ve learned how to do some programming, and I would love to learn more about that at KVCC. I feel that XL Machine is preparing me for my future by giving me all the knowledge that I need to be able to further myself in this career.”

To incentivize learning, XL Machine will pay 100 percent of the tuition costs at KVCC for those pursuing an apprenticeship – with some requirements. “Students have to have a little bit of skin in the game,” says Orlowski. “They work regular hours, and a standard week for a machinist is 40 hours plus 10 hours of overtime. They go to school at night or on Saturday. If they maintain a ‘B’ average or better and remain punctual at work, we will pay their tuition.”

Levi Van der Loon entered XL Machine’s apprenticeship program and will ultimately earn a Journeyman’s certificate while learning how to use CAD and CAM programs.

Levi Van der Loon is a machinist with similar responsibilities to Gillies. He also took the Computerized Manufacturing class, but he took it all four years of high school because he loved the manufacturing environment so much.

“During my junior year, Education for Employment, Kalamazoo's youth job program, talked to me. They coordinated a job interview here at XL Machine, and I started a co-op as a result,” says Van der Loon. “Half the day I would go to school, and I would work the rest of the day. I thought it was very helpful being able to continue with high school and make money at the same time.”

Working at XL Machine within the co-op program helped Van der Loon buy his first car at age 16. Now that he works on high-end CNC machines, he says the trust XL Machine has placed in him makes him eager to learn more.

“One of the coolest things I do at XL Machine is take an aluminum billet and machine it into a complete supercharger construction housing,” he says.

While Van der Loon can set up and run a CNC mill, he only has basic programming skills — for now. After graduating from high school in May 2017, he entered XL Machine’s apprenticeship program with KVCC. Ultimately, he will earn a Journeyman’s certificate while learning how to use CAD and CAM programs.

“XL Machine's apprenticeship program is a huge help. They pay for all my classes, and all I have to do is just get good grades,” he says.

Of course, “just” getting good grades requires putting in long hours as an apprentice, and XL Machine holds its co-op students to similarly high standards.

Sam Gehrig, a 16-year-old junior co-op student at Vicksburg High School, works at XL Machine from 6 – 9 a.m. before going to school. His responsibilities include basic tasks that teach discipline, such as mopping up coolant spills, emptying trashcans and recycling bins and other cleaning tasks. After proving himself, Gehrig will move into machine maintenance for one year to introduce him to the mechanics of CNC machines. By the time he graduates high school, he will learn how to run parts, measure them and begin to learn to set up parts.

“I’m not on a machine yet, but I know I will be,” he says. “I was never actually interested in coming to a machine shop, but I’ve always wanted to be an engineer. Once the co-op came around, I wanted to get involved and see if I liked the environment. It’s pretty fun so far. I've been hands-on all my life, and I like putting things together.” Gehrig adds that the designing aspect of engineering interests him, as does welding.

An Awesome Job

Right after he threw off his high school graduation cap, Scott Gilbert started full-time work at XL Machine because he participated in the company’s co-op program. “I got to have a real-life experience in high school, then I had a job waiting for me."

Scott Gilbert, who has worked as a machinist at XL Machine since graduating from Vicksburg High School in 2016, takes pride in the fact that he can take a blueprint and billet and turn it into a complex part.

“Some people think we just load a billet and hit a button. Being a machinist is way more difficult than that,” says Gilbert. “We get the blueprints, but then we have to program the way the tools come in and cut material, make sure we have the right cutting tool insert, choose the right type of coolant and more. It’s very challenging at times, but it’s very rewarding. At the end of the day, you know you have succeeded in accomplishing the task.”

Gilbert is now working on his apprentice certificate at KVCC. His program is a combination between a machinist and a programmer.

“Right now they have me in a basic math class because it’s required,” he says. “I understand the basics and already know most of it, but I'm okay with refreshing my skills, because over time you forget. If you don't sharpen the knife, it gets dull.”

With the can-do attitude of these young students and apprentices, Orlowski’s passion and the corporate support of Burke Porter Group, XL Machine looks like it will remain in “Top Shops shape” for years to come.

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