Westminster Tool creates academy to find, train future toolmakers

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Frank Antosiewicz Ray Coombs, president of Westminster Tool Inc.

Like many tool makers, Westminster Tool Inc. knows the difficulties of finding skilled employees.

That’s why the Plainfield, Conn., company is training its own, with the formation of its own Westminster Academy.

“If we don’t address the skills gap, all of us will be hurt and the whole industry will go away,”   said Ray Coombs, president of Westminster Tool, in a telephone interview.

It is a serious investment. The company is spending time developing the course and bought a nearby 13,000-square-foot facility at the start of the year to provide a fitness center and classroom space.

“Some say how can you afford it, but I say you can’t afford not to,” Coombs said.

He said to draw “the best and brightest,” perks as well as providing a strong learning experience are necessary.

Westminster Tool makes injection molds for the aerospace, medical and industrial markets and has 36 employees. He said that it takes about seven years to train a top mold maker. Coombs said that with four reaching retirement age in the next three to five years and business growing, it is important to bring on new talent.

The search has taken many turns. He said after spending $15,000 over nine months on help-wanted ads for skilled mold makers, it received only four applications — two were from retirees wanting part-time work and another decided against moving.

Westminster has also been working with the Eastern Advanced Manufacturing Alliance, a local nonprofit organization, to develop relevant manufacturing courses at the local community colleges. Now, they can provide skills for new workers or improves skills for those already employed.

Westminster Tool has hired three employees who are graduates of Quinebaug Valley Community College, which started an Advanced Manufacturing certificate program in 2012. Westminster also sponsors two more students in the program.

The company’s Academy program is a formal program for the various positions including mold maker, and it is set up so there is consistency in how jobs are performed. He said that idea came from watching molders learn skills in China. The new hire is teamed up with a senior team member, and the apprentice is tasked with the documentation.

Coombs said many of the courses are meant to develop “soft skills,” like how to run a meeting or complete a lesson plan. He said it will take about two years to complete the core courses and then employees can concentrate on specialties.

He said that six to eight employees will take part in the training over the coming year and that by next year they will have a system in place that they will be able to duplicate. It is an investment that Coombs expects will pay dividends with many more workers available for future growth.