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September 1, 2001

7 Min Read
Apprenticeships: Building the future of molding

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Richard Evans is a second-year apprentice at Ameritech Tool & Die. The company recently finished a mold that was 90 percent built by Evans, who started working at the company in June 1999 as he entered his senior year of high school. During school, Evans worked 4 hours a day on co-op at Ameritech. Once he graduated, he began attending junior college one day a week for related technical classes. The mold that Evans built is for a brake cover used by John Deere (below). To build the mold, Evans programmed and cut the core, cavity, and electrode using Surfcam, an Enshu vertical machining center, and a Makino V-55 high-speed VMC.

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Drawing young people's interest to the plastics industry in the face of other high-tech and seemingly more glamorous opportunities is not an easy task. Yet, there is a successful apprenticeship program in North Carolina called Apprenticeship 2000 that is enjoying great success doing just that. 

So far, the program, which has the support of five local companies, is pulling as many as 15 new apprentices into the industry each year. During any four-year period, there are approximately 52 apprentices working at the companies, which range from a small moldmaking shop to an international manufacturer. 

The program was started in 1994 by Blum, a large manufacturer headquartered in Austria. Blum has a lot of experience when it comes to attracting and growing apprentices. At any one time, Blum Austria is teaching 130 apprentices. Yet, the company knew that in order to do in the U.S. what it was doing in Austria, it needed partners. Currently, Blum's Stanley, NC plant is partnering with four other firms: Daetwyler, Sarstedt, Timkin, and Ameritech Die & Mold. Together these North Carolina companies cover a variety of manufacturing functions, including injection molding, precision machining, and tool and die manufacturing. 

All have made a commitment of time and money, but the benefits are definitely worth it, says Steve Rotman, president of Ameritech Die & Mold. "For us to make a commitment to hire one apprentice each year is a big commitment, but it's the best thing we've ever done," he says. "Already one-quarter of our employees are from the program." 

Supporting Success 
At 20 employees, Ameritech (Mooresville, NC) is the smallest company involved in Apprenticeship 2000. Yet the program is designed to allow Ameritech to grow moldmaking apprentices at a rate at which it can absorb the costs. For Ameritech that's one apprentice each year; for Blum it's six. 

Costs associated with promoting the program—website, promotional videotape, and brochures—and such things as training manuals are shared among the partners and are based on the number of apprentices each company takes per year. Internal costs vary from company to company. For instance, Blum, which has approximately 24 apprentices at any one time, has full-time mentor-trainers who continuously work with apprentices in a dedicated 5000-sq-ft facility. 

Currently, the Apprenticeship 2000 program offers training in tool and die making, CNC machining, electronics, moldmaking, plastics process management, machine control, and quality assurance. Students signing on to become moldmaker/process technicians, for example, learn various moldbuilding techniques using machine tools such as lathes and grinders. Additionally, they will learn all aspects of plastic processing technology such as mold installation, machine setup, and operation of computerized molding machines, Rotman explains. 

The program is supported by the local junior college, Central Piedmont Community College, which provides students with a two-year classroom program and degree. Of course, attracting students means offering job opportunities in various areas of manufacturing, which in turn requires the participation of companies that have positions available. 

Most important, says Rotman, participating companies must be willing to be "true participants, and not just riders. Many companies want to have an apprenticeship program, but when they find out the time it takes they often back out," he says. 

Commitment to Quality 
"Before we ever sign an apprenticeship with a student we've spent approximately 200 hours with that student," Rotman stresses. "They have a very good idea of what they're getting into and we've got an excellent idea of who the person is." 

It all begins in the fall of each year, explains Rotman, when participating companies split up the 20 to 25 local high schools by county and begin visiting 11th graders to generate interest. Rotman generally visits four to five schools to talk to students that have the appropriate math and design skills and who have been recommended by teachers. 

To enter the program students must be at least 16 years of age, have a minimum overall GPA of 2.5, have completed courses in algebra and geometry, completed or plan to enroll in technical drafting and computer courses, and pass a drug screen. School visits are followed by two to three open houses for interested students and their parents. 

The next step, shadowing, begins in the spring. Shadowing is a one-week program in which interested high school juniors work with trainers (one trainer for every two students) after school on a specially picked project. Ameritech generally attracts about 18 students for shadowing. Nine students are trained at a time, armed with a training booklet developed by Blum. "At the end of the week we want them to walk away with a finished project," says Rotman. 

By summer, the companies determine who the best candidates are for the program and invite these students to a six-week internship program. Companies generally hire twice as many interns as will actually be selected for the apprenticeship program. Each week, interns spend three 8-hour days working at the company and two full days taking classes at Central Piedmont. 

By the end of the six weeks, after evaluating on-the-job and classroom success, the companies choose new apprentices. "The level of student that we're able to get by going through all of the testing and hours is much higher," says Rotman when considering the alternatives. "It gives us more confidence in our choice." 

Student apprentices begin the program in their senior year of high school, working part-time in the company most suited to their needs and interests. Students work for three years at their sponsoring company while attending Central Piedmont. All tuition and fees are fully paid, and students are paid for both their work and daytime classroom hours. A wage scale is established, based on a combined grading of a student's academic and shop grades. Every six months, participants get a raise. Hourly wages generally start at about $6.50 and reach $15 by the end of the program. 

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Not all apprentices in the program begin as high school students. Brad Charles is an adult apprentice at Ameritech, joining the program several years after graduating high school. He recently began attending classes with other summer interns.

Incentives that Pay 
Apprenticeship 2000 is becoming increasingly popular, attracting one and a half times the students that are generally accepted into the program, says Rotman. In many cases, the program sells itself. "Once we started the program, it infiltrated the schools," says Rotman. "Our apprentices are still in 12th grade when they begin so they sell the program to other students." 

Another attractive aspect of the program is what students get out of it. Upon completion, students have earned an AS degree in Manufacturing Engineering Technology from Central Piedmont, an Apprenticeship Certificate from the North Carolina Dept. of Labor, and a job. All combined, it's an attractive opportunity for high school students and their parents. 

Getting students early also is an attractive prospect for participating companies. Rotman, who now has five employees from the program (two graduates and three in training), says that because students are trained from the first day on how things are done at Ameritech, they have a better chance of becoming viable employees than those hired from another shop. 

"Usually, I lose six months just teaching a new guy how we do things at Ameritech," Rotman says. "But with a student apprentice, I can train them right out of the gate." 

Contact information
Ameritech Die & Mold Inc.
Mooresville, NC
Steve Rotman
(704) 664-0801
www.amdiemold.com

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