North Carolina plastics firms look to apprenticeships

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Steve Toloken Employees on the Ameritech Die & Mold factory floor. Ameritech and other plastics firms in North America use apprenticeship programs to train and hire skilled workers.

Charlotte, N.C. — After Bright Plastics Inc. struggled to get skilled workers for an expansion of its Greensboro, N.C., injection molding factory three years ago, the company knew it needed to try something different.

It decided to develop technical staff in-house and began an intensive, and expensive, youth apprenticeship program. Last fall, its first apprentice started the four-year program.

Steve Toloken Poteat

"What started the whole thing was we went through an expansion in 2014-2015, and we really struggled with finding skilled hourly positions," said Todd Poteat, Bright's vice president of manufacturing. "We ​ were having to use recruiting agencies to find those folks. They weren't available."

It's a growing problem. Workforce development was the No. 1 challenge at 92 percent of companies in a recent survey from the Manufacturers Association for Plastics Processors. That's twice the percentage who rated it the top challenge in 2012.

Bright is one of several plastics companies in North Carolina embracing apprenticeships to deal with shortages of technical employees.

State officials in North Carolina say their programs are modeled partly on the German dual-system of vocational education that combines paid on-the-job training with college courses.

There are now 11 youth apprenticeship programs across the state, with all but two of them starting in the last five years, said Pamela Howze, executive director of work-based learning, business and veteran services for the North Carolina Department of Commerce.

"This is a growing trend in North Carolina, using this German-style apprenticeship model but also using the public-private partnership model in which we're seeing like industries come together and work collectively," said Howze, who formerly ran an apprenticeship program for Siemens in North Carolina before taking her current job.

Steve Toloken Mike Merzke, a first year apprentice, on the floor of Ameritech Die & Mold.

Part of the driver for the apprentice programs is an aging workforce in technical jobs. In the plastics tooling sector, for example, 52 percent of the workforce is at least 45 years old, according to the American Mold Builders Association.

"They are starting to see their workforce age out," Howze said. "They don't really have a pipeline of skilled workers to fill those positions."

North Carolina's apprenticeship programs are not cheap for companies, though. When you add up on-the-job training, tuition and books, which are all paid by the company, it can cost $125,000 to $150,000 to train one apprentice over four years, said Poteat, who is also chairman of the Guilford Apprenticeship Partners, a program that started in Greensboro last year.

Companies don't see it as a panacea, but believe it can create a pipeline of skilled, educated technical staff like process technicians, mold makers or machinists.

"This is one solution; it's not the only solution," Poteat said. "There's no magic potion or bullet to fix the people issue."

Still, interest is growing. Howze said there are currently 900 students in North Carolina's formal youth apprenticeships, with the number of first-year students doubling this year and possibly doubling again next year.

"We are seeing a huge growth in the number of youth who are entering apprenticeship programs," she said.

That mirrors the startup effort in Guilford County. Poteat said it will likely grow from 14 students this year, its first year, to an incoming class of more than 30 next year, as more companies join.

A 2015 study from the Manufacturing Institute in Washington said manufacturers face a potential gap of 2 million skilled employees in the next decade.

It said that 22 percent of the current 12.3 million employees in manufacturing, or 2.7 million people, will reach retirement age by 2025, and that regular growth will create an additional 700,000 new manufacturing jobs.

Based on current difficulties filling skilled technical jobs and from its surveys of executives, the group estimated manufacturers could have trouble filling 60 percent of those 3.4 million openings.

Steve Toloken Mike Shinn, who finished his apprenticeship at Ameritech Die & Mold in Moorseville, N.C., in 2011.

"Our biggest problem is we've lost our skills base," said Troy DeVlieger, president of Pfaff Molds LP in Charlotte, and a participant in the Apprenticeship 2000 program in that city. "This is a good opportunity ... to bring that knowledge and skills base back."

North Carolina is expanding its support for apprenticeships. The Legislature last year voted to have the state pay the tuition costs for students in youth apprenticeship programs.

In addition, Howze said her department is adding a full-time youth engagement coordinator this spring to spread the word about apprenticeships to students, teachers and parents.

With $1.2 million in federal grant money, the state is planning a big campaign of social media and traditional ads like billboards.

"We're really trying to break some paradigms and myths across the state about how valuable these apprenticeship programs can be," she said.

"It's a priority because we have employers across the nation who cannot attract a skilled workforce," Howze said. "It's really becoming somewhat of a crisis situation. Employers are realizing very quickly they need to be involved in training their own workforce."

Read more about North Carolina's program:

Apprentice motivation: Free college and a job

Pricey apprenticeships help two mold shops compete