By George Hohmann
For the W.Va. Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — An apprenticeship program developed in West Virginia is expanding to offer new opportunities to more workers and employers in the Mountain State and beyond.
Employees who participate in the Apprenticeship Works program continue at their regular job and earn a paycheck. They also receive hands-on training with equipment and take classes. They earn certifications recognized in their field of work and take related classes that result in an associate’s degree. Their new skills may result in higher pay.
Companies benefit because workers receive standardized training with customized features that fit the employers’ needs, resulting in improved productivity and profitability.
The program began in 2014 at Mohawk Industries Inc.’s plant in Holden, Logan County. The plant, which makes solid hardwood flooring, was established by the late Buck Harless as Appalachian Precision Hardwoods. Harless sold it to Columbia Flooring which in turn sold it to Mohawk, the world’s largest flooring manufacturer.
Rick Dillon and Travis McCloud are among the plant’s seven current apprenticeship program participants.
Dillon, 48, of Williamson, is a quality control technician lead, which means he ensures that the flooring manufactured in the plant meets Mohawk’s quality standards. He began a machinist apprenticeship last May and so far has taken classes in milling, lathe work, precision measurement, blueprint reading and schematics.
The program “empowers and strengthens me,” Dillon said. “It has given me a lot of knowledge about how things work. The more I know the more valuable I am, not only as an employee but as a person. It’s given me a chance to do things I have never done before, never would have done before. This is really a big deal for me.”
Dillon and his wife, Pam, have three boys: Brandon, Ricky and Randall.
His regular shift at Mohawk is from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. But after work on Tuesday and Wednesdays, Dillon goes to class until 9 p.m. in the maintenance shop, where the company provides a classroom.
He receives his regular pay when working his regular job and when going to class.
Lucinda Curry, the director of workforce and recruiting development at the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Flexible Manufacturing, or RCBI, said Mohawk doesn’t have to pay Dillon for his time in the classroom but it does.
She said the apprenticeships include built-in wage progression unless the employee is already at the top of their pay scale. If that’s the case it’s up to the company to offer a higher wage. “But they’re paying for your education,” she said. “They are doing a great service for their apprentices.”
When Dillon finishes in 2019 he will have earned a federal Department of Labor registered apprenticeship card, also known as a journeyman’s card, which is a nationally recognized credential. In addition, he will have a certificate from RCBI and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Mechatronics with 60 hours of credit from Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College.
Greta Curry, human resource manager at Mohawk’s Holden plant (she’s not related to RCBI’s Curry), said mechatronics incorporates mechanical, electronic, hydraulic, welding and computer skills. It’s a two-year degree but it will take Dillon four years because he’s taking classes part-time.
Dillion’s achievements will be especially valuable because he will have completed lots of hands-on training and employers want workers who have experience as well as certificates and degrees.
McCloud, of Harts, also works at the Holden plant. He fixes machines. McCloud became a program participant two years ago in the first group of apprentices at the company. He attends classes and engages in hands-on training from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every Friday.
RCBI’s Curry pointed out that the RCBI is flexible and arranges class times around company and employee needs.
McCloud said, “To me getting the degree is worth it, if that’s all I get. My grandparents on my Mom’s side have 35 grandkids. The youngest is 40. I’ll be the fourth one to get a degree.
“When I graduated high school I wanted to go to college but it didn’t happen,” McCloud said. “I ended up going to Ohio and working. Now I’m back and I’m 45 years old. I’m getting a second opportunity in life. I get to go to work and go to school while I’m at work.”
McCloud and his wife, Betty, have a daughter, Hannah. He spends considerable time shuttling Hannah to and from extracurricular events at her school and he is a deacon in his church. The apprenticeship program “is kind of built around my life,” he said. “It’s perfect for me. Any other way, I couldn’t have done it.”
A mechanic for eight-and-a-half years, McCloud said that before he enrolled in the program he never had the opportunity to work on programmable logic controllers, which continuously monitor the state of input devices and control the state of output devices.
“Before if there were problems I couldn’t deal with it but now when it breaks down they can call me,” he said. “That makes me a better mechanic. I’m learning skills I didn’t know and I’m honing my knowledge and technique.”
Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has said trade apprenticeships play an important role in improving employee skills and increasing the workforce participation rate. West Virginia has the lowest percentage of adults in the nation who are either working or actively looking for work. RCBI used the Mohawk plant’s program as a model to develop Apprenticeship Works. Partners, in addition to Mohawk, included Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College, WorkForce West Virginia, the Job Corps, and the Region 2 Workforce Investment Board, said Charlotte Weber, RCBI’s director and chief executive officer.
Mohawk is expanding the program to all 20 of its locations in the United States and expects to have several hundred apprentices in its programs within the next few years.
Gestamp —an international automobile parts manufacturer with a metal stamping plant in South Charleston — has signed onto the program and is offering an accelerated, two-year apprenticeship in conjunction with RCBI and BridgeValley Community and Technical College. RCBI’s Curry said Gestamp also wants to establish apprenticeships at some of its plants in other states.
The collaborative nature of the program — “to us, it’s second nature,” Weber said — captured the attention of the federal Department of Labor. As a result, late last year the department awarded $4.9 million to RCBI to take Apprenticeship Works nationwide.
Weber said at least 1,000 apprentices and 415 pre-apprentices in West Virginia and around the country are expected to be served over the next five years. RCBI is actively recruiting more companies to participate.
In addition to RCBI, the Labor Department, Mohawk Industries, Gestamp, Southern and BridgeValley, Apprenticeship Works partners include ToolingU-SME, a nonprofit that provides training and development for manufacturing; America Makes; the National Coalition of Advanced Technology Centers; West Virginia Women Work; Troops to Technology; Job Corps; and Workforce Investment Boards. More partners will be added as the program expands.
The following apprenticeships initially will be established: Additive Manufacturing/3-D Printing Technician; Assembly Technician; CNC Operator and Programmer; Electrician; Engineering Assistant; Grinder Set-up Operator; Machinist; Maintenance Technician; Press Operator; Quality Control Inspection; Composites Technician; Robotics; and Arc Welding Machine Operator.
For more information go to www.RCBI.org/online/apprenticeships or call 1 800 469-7224.