Each year, DeKalb Molded Plastics Co. sets aside training funds for its employees.
They attend sessions on safety, lean manufacturing and general manufacturing improvements.
But the question, said Rick Walters, vice president of operations for Butler, Ind.-based DeKalb, has been whether the sessions have provided real substance in improvements.
Now, the company has become one of the first to sign on to an internationally recognized program that provides accreditation for machine operators and tracks the resulting improvement.
``Sometimes we get so involved in making plastic parts that we forget that the people who are going to be spending up to 12 hours actually making them also want to have some way of advancement,'' Walters said May 24 at Plastics Encounter in Indianapolis.
Mid-America Plastics Partners Inc. in Indianapolis is coordinating the certification program, linked to international standards first developed in England and translated for the United States by A. Routsis Associates Inc. of Dracut, Mass. said Troy Nix, executive director of MAPP.
Indiana is serving as a springboard for the Global Standards for Plastics Certification program, with the state and Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana supporting the employee training.
Indiana officials approached MAPP more than two years ago wondering if there was some kind of standard training process for the plastics industry, Nix said.
The program Routsis found relies on outside certification, and provides employees who pass certain levels with a certificate they can take to other jobs.
Carol Krol, human resources manager for Metro Plastics Technologies Inc. of Noblesville, Ind., compares the certification process with the steps manufacturers go through to win their ISO certification - with intense and specific points each candidate must pass, and which are judged by an independent agency - in this case, MAPP.
The first 10 companies now have employees in the certification pipeline, with Indiana chipping in $30,000 worth of training assistance. MAPP is talking with officials in Ohio for backing for a similar program there, Nix said.
MAPP's involvement as a third-party auditor should provide legitimacy to employees taking part in GSPC, he said.
Companies outside those states also can take part by funding it on their own.
The certification is not a cakewalk, Nix said.
The training book itself weighs in at about 3 pounds. There are three separate degree levels, with the vast majority of employees at any given shop capable of passing the first one - but the process still takes about nine months, he said. Maybe half of the employees could move on to level two, which requires them to show skills in a variety of work activities in routine and nonroutine tasks.
Only 5 percent make it to the top level. Those are the workers companies covet, Nix said, the ones who can set up any process, think on their feet and trouble-shoot on the spot.
``This has teeth,'' he said. ``Not everybody who goes for it is going to pass this thing.''
The steady certification pattern, from level one on up, also provides a continuous training loop, Krol said.
The system requires not just book knowledge, but shop-floor knowledge, said Bill Warrenfelz, operations manager for micromolding specialist Makuta Technics Inc., headquartered in Columbus, Ind.
``It isn't just, `Do you know the answers?' It's, `Show me the answers,' '' he said.
DeKalb plans to put 105 employees through the program - from machine operators to warehouse and office workers - because it believes the level of understanding required through the process improves everyone's performance.
Walters said DeKalb can track improved scrap rates and better safety records from the trained employees.
``We're seeing our turnover numbers decrease because the attitude of the [certification] candidates is that they have a sense of ownership in their job,'' Warrenfelz said.
The employees, meanwhile, can earn college credits through Ivy Tech while also walking away with a certification with their name on it - something with real value should they need to seek another job.
``I'm sure some people may see that as us doing training that other companies will benefit from, but while you have the employee, if you can get them to be better for the company, I don't really see that as being a downside,'' Warrenfelz said.