Veterans training program helping to fill manufacturing skills gap

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TechRepublic’s Karen Roby talks with Rockwell Automation’s Blake Moret about the Advanced Academy of Manufacturing’s veterans training program, which is helping the manufacturing sector’s skills gap.

TechRepublic’s Karen Roby talked with Blake Moret, the chairman, and CEO of Rockwell Automation, about the Academy of Advanced Manufacturing. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Karen Roby: I know the Academy of Advanced Manufacturing holds a special place in your heart, so let’s talk a little bit about the program and the state of manufacturing in general.

Blake Moret: There’s a lot of new technology as IT and manufacturing technologies come together, that can enable whole new levels of productivity on the plant floor. But in addition to the technology to actually be useful to companies, you obviously have to have the workforce that’s comfortable interacting with that technology.

For the first time, we’re seeing projects that are sometimes delayed, not because the technology or the capital is available, but because they’re concerned that they have enough trained workers. So that was really the genesis of the idea behind the Academy of Advanced Manufacturing.

Karen Roby: Talk a little bit about how this came to be, how you had this idea to upskill veterans, and what goes into a program like this?

Blake Moret: Well, for many years, we’ve been providing intensive training for our new hires, particularly those that are going into field service to give them the hands-on training with the products that they’re going to see in the field. And then we expanded it to all of our new engineers within the company. And we were receiving, at the same time, a lot of requests for more intensive workforce development from our customers, more than the one or two days or even one-week classes that are typically offered.

So we took the basic curriculum that we’ve been using for many years internally and made it available externally. But as we looked at structuring the program, we thought, “Who are the potential workers, who would come with a lot of the soft skills? The ability to work well in groups to show up on time who might already have some familiarity with similar technologies.” And that’s why we thought about veterans first as we opened up this program to the outside.

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Karen Roby: Veterans seem to be a natural fit in terms of some of the experience they’ve had and being disciplined and coming out from service and need to be upskilled. They need in some sense, a whole new outlook, and a new career path. So talk a little bit about how the program works when you bring them in. How do you recruit to begin with and then what happens from there?

Blake Moret: We teamed up with Manpower to look at qualifying veterans, taking a look at their occupational specialty, their MOS in the armed forces, whatever branch that they were coming from. And so we prequalified the candidates for the program, and then we brought them into one of our two campuses in Milwaukee or in Cleveland where we had the equipment, we house them, we feed them. And during the course of the program, we bring in manufacturers from around the United States to interview these students, and to look for matches with their own needs, typically around technician level skills within their plants and factories.

Karen Roby: When you talk with some of these veterans, a lot of them, they’re not in a great place. A lot of them are confused, concerned; they don’t know what their life is going to look like now that they’re out of the military, and what they’re used to doing day after day. So it seems like this kind of provides them a nice path. It’s predictable, something that they can follow along with and really start a whole new life through.

Blake Moret: It absolutely is. The first thing we have to overcome when we bring candidates in, and we offer them a chance to be in the program is their disbelief that this is real. They’re worried when we tell them that we’re going to train him over a 12-week program, we’re going to house them, they’re going to have food, a stipend. They worry that this is some sort of scam, that you know, behind it all, someone’s going to try to sell them the TV or something.

So that’s the first obstacle, but as they get into it and recognize that’s what’s driving us here, there’s a lot of gratitude. But you’re right there coming from difficult circumstances in addition to the things that they might have seen in active combat, many of the soldiers come from a tough background, that may have led them to the military. And so we found that that part of the program, being able to provide the services during that period of time that goes outside of just the basic learning is an important part of the success of the program.

Karen Roby: I could see where some of them would be a little bit concerned. They are thinking that maybe too good to be true. That you’re offering them this, so, Blake, when you talk about when they finish up the program, what is the outlook from there? How many of them ten to get placement pretty quickly? Does it require a lot of them to move from where they’re coming from and talk about salaries a little bit in terms of a range of where they’re being placed?

Blake Moret: In a typical class, about 90% of the students in a class, and that class might have 20 to 30 students in it, about 90% will get placed at jobs in manufacturing companies, pretty much immediately after graduating the 12-week program. They’re typically being hired into technician level jobs. The average salary is around 55 to $60,000, which is good, especially considering that the typical profile of the student is having a high school diploma, plus some of this additional vocational training.

We’ve seen evidence that some of the hiring salaries are considerably higher. We’ve also seen people being promoted rapidly within the first year of being graduated from the program.

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Karen Roby: That’s fantastic. And I think sometimes people, when it comes to manufacturing are concerned about, where it’s going in terms of needing humans to still do a lot of this work. And so just talk a little bit about some of the specific positions or where the need really is when it comes to manufacturing from, in terms of human talent.

Blake Moret: Well, these jobs that graduates of the program are moving into are really right at the front lines, if you will, of where information technology comes together with operational technology. What actually happens with the machinery on the plant floor. And so as companies are trying to unlock additional efficiency and productivity on the floor, that doesn’t necessarily mean less workers. That means workers who are capable of being comfortable working with advanced technology. They’re being valued more for their decision-making skills rather than repetitive physical labor as characterized many of those jobs in the past.

Karen Roby: Why do you think now being into this somewhat, it’s important for other people in your position or other companies to consider doing something similar when it comes to veterans? Why help?

Blake Moret: Well, there are so many reasons that this is good and valuable. The concept of lifelong learning I think for anybody’s career is really important, because no matter what education you got when you first got out of high school or college, it’s not going to be sufficient to sustain you over what could be a 40-year career. Technology changes, you move into different roles.

This is a great example of lifelong learning being provided. For our company, it obviously changes the conversation that we can have with our customers. It’s not just as a vendor of technology, but it’s helping them to expand human possibility to make the most of their human resources within the company. And that’s at least as important as their capacity to acquire new technology. It’s also a way to do things that connect with the community and give back.

That’s so important for many of our employees. To have a program like this has helped so many people, many of which are veterans themselves who work for us, recognize the good that we’re doing and gives them a greater sense of meaning as a part of Rockwell Automation. I can tell you for me; this is the single most satisfying thing professionally that I’ve done in my career. It’s worked and the way it’s engaged our employees and provided the results that we hoped or dreamed that they could provide has really been just a source of deep satisfaction.

Karen Roby: We talk so much about upskilling workers, and this is a great fit for veterans as they’re coming out and looking for something new for themselves. So where do you see this program going? What is your hope for it in the future?

Blake Moret: We’ve graduated about 120 students who’ve gone on to these jobs at manufacturers all over the United States. We’re on our way to a thousand a year. That’s our plan. So we need to work on scaling it beyond the two campuses that we have. And we’re looking at the role that tech schools can provide as well to be able to provide additional locations around the country for this.
In some cases, companies who’ve come back to us and said, “We want to teach the students that we’re going to end up hiring on specific technologies, can that be incorporated into the curriculum?” And so we’re considering that as well. And then many of these companies say, “I’ve got people who are already part of my workforce, but I need to re-skill them as we acquire this additional technology. Can I send an existing employee through this program?” And we plan to accommodate that as well.

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Veterans training program helping to fill manufacturing skills gap