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CHICAGO — The National Institute for Metalworking Skills Inc. is creating uniform national standards by which apprentice mold makers can be schooled, tested and certified.

If the system is to work, NIMS must bring mold makers on board. But countering the push for homogeneous standards is the independent mind-set of most entrepreneurial mold shops, which are used to training their own, according to Bruce Braker, a NIMS director and president of the Tooling & Manufacturing Association, a trade group in Park Ridge, Ill.

Braker said he foresees a hard sell ahead.

``In the U.S., there's a great deal of independence locally, in terms of both schools and employers,'' he said recently by telephone. ``The skills standard initiative is still quite new and most employers don't know about it and don't care.''

On the NIMS board with Braker are representatives from industry, government, labor and education—primarily community colleges and universities. Bob Sherman, a former vice president for the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., is NIMS' executive director based in Vienna, Va. Washington-based SPI, though in favor of standards, is not sponsoring NIMS' effort, Braker said.

With funding from sources such as the U.S. Department of Labor and the Medinah, Ill.-based American Mold Builders Association, nonprofit NIMS recently completed a draft that lays out the proficiencies and skills required for what it calls level-two, or junior, mold maker. Level one, which precedes it, covers basic machining, the foundation of any metalworking career.

According to Braker: Level-two mold makers should know, and be able to demonstrate, that they can review a mold design and data sheet, develop a manufacturing plan and determine how to meet a due date. They should know how to build and assemble a mold, and how to operate such specialized equipment as a wire electric discharge machine.

Level-two mold makers also must possess what Braker called ``employability skills,'' such as being able to communicate well, do arithmetic through trigonometry, make decisions and solve problems. Plus, he said, when they look at an engineering sketch, they need to know what it means.

The group also is drafting level-three guides for lead mold makers, which might number only five in a typical, 40-person shop, Braker said.

``It's going to drive the development of curricula, and companies will see advantages in having certified mold makers on staff,'' he said. ``Now if I say I'm a machinist or a mold maker, they really don't know what I can do till they get me in the shop and find out.''

Right now emlployers and local trade groups are finding their own home-grown solutions to training and apprenticeships, though sometimes the government, through funding, has a hand in determining requisites.

As a regional trade group serving the six-county Chicago area, TMA already works to help its 1,540 plastics and metalworking member companies — 160 of them mold makers — stay up to snuff, Braker said. It is the only regional trade group in NIMS; the rest, like AMBA, are national organizations, he noted.

``Because we have a large local base, we can put together training more effectively than a national group that has members scattered all over,'' he said.

Although mold makers are finding workers that have the brains and the bent for becoming highly skilled, full-fledged journeymen, they still worry about whether their profession will continue to see an influx of new blood.

If they have a formula for success, it is to recruit the cream of the crop to start, enroll them in four-year apprenticeship programs and promote from within.

Mold shops often hire their entry-level machinists from community colleges, then send them through longer apprenticeship programs. However, two-year mold-making programs, like the one in place at Vincennes University in Vincennes, Ind., are rare, said Tom Williams, human resources manager for Caco Pacific Corp., a 180-person injection mold-making outfit in Covina, Calif.

``People coming out of a program like that are very employable,'' he said recently by telephone.

More common are community college graduates with machining experience. Caco stays in constant contact with instructors from eight to 10 local colleges, plus donates equipment ``to get their best students'' for its three- and four-year mold-making apprenticeships, Williams said.

Caco's earn-while-you-learn program follows a generic formula, where apprentices work days at the plant and take college classes at night studying advanced technology, like computer numerically controlled machining and computer-aided manufacturing, he said.

Minco Tool & Mold Inc. of Dayton, Ohio, prefers to hire people with two-year degrees, said Joe Kavalauskas, vice president and general manager. And, he said, his 175-person shop has ``tremendous needs.''

Minco's candidates for its four-year, state-approved apprenticeships typically come through a local one-year program called Step II, sponsored by the Dayton Tooling & Machining Association trade group, Kavalauskas said in an interview at the National Design Engineering Show, held March 10-13 in Chicago.

And Minco's best mold makers? ``They have to come up from the ranks,'' he said. ``There's no classroom, no book that makes up for the pure experience.''

Beach Mold & Tool Inc. of New Albany, Ind., whose 80-person mold shop serves the company's injection molding operation, also offers a four-year apprenticeship toward journeyman mold maker. Like many others, that program is state-approved and based on a model from the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training, which requires 8,000 on-the-job hours over four years, plus classroom training.

To deal with the want of skilled labor, Beach pushes its employees to grow their know-how, and harvests apprenticeship candidates in-house from other areas, such as press operators, said Ann Walsh, Beach manager of training and development. Of first-year apprentices, the youngest's age is 18, the oldest 42, she said.

``Some people need a few years to knock around before they know what they want to do,'' said Braker, whose group offers an apprenticeship program.

Janler Corp. hires its apprentices through TMA, said Chuck Klingler, the Chicago molder and mold maker's business development manager. Its beginning apprentices tend to be 18-year-old high school graduates with some machine shop experience, he said at the Chicago design show.

Although it is not the norm for TMA-trained apprentices to come from a school-to-work program that gives high school or trade school kids a foot in the door at manufacturing firms, the setup still works for some. But many molders say that regional joint vocational schools, or career centers, do not give them the caliber of student they need.

Ron Pleasant, owner of mold maker Pleasant Precision Inc. in Kenton, Ohio, said: ``You don't necessarily get the top-notch kids'' at JV schools, because they generally do not offer sports or other extra-curricular activities that make them competitive with traditional high schools.

In fact, some mold shops seem less interested in JV students than in steering mainstream high school students into community colleges to pursue plastics careers.

Minco's Kavalauskas, who is on the Education Committee of the Plastics Processors Association of Ohio, a trade group affiliated with SPI, helped write a pamphlet mapping out plastics careers for Ohio high school students.

Many JV programs have just plain died, Braker said. For the ones that remain, companies want them to be taught a higher level, to make graduates trainable in today's technology demands.

But, Larry Koetter, estimating manager at Beach, said he thinks JV kids have been stigmatized as low achievers. Beach recruits one to two JV students a year for its work-release training program.