Erie, Pa. — The American Injection Molding Institute and Clarion University are creating a European-style pre-apprenticeship curriculum for high school students.
The new program would build on a conventional apprenticeship program that started just nine months ago. That program is aimed at adults who are already working at plastics firms.
In addition, the two educational organizations want to start a two-year degree in plastics processing.
AIM, which is part of Erie-based Beaumont Technologies Inc., already is well known in plastics training circles. Its flagship program is a yearlong Plastics Technology & Engineering certificate, which offers hands-on training to plastics processors and technicians.
The conventional apprenticeship program kicked off in November. Now, officials say that adding a pre-apprenticeship, too, could tap into the national discussion about how to get young people interested in manufacturing.
"So there would be pre-apprenticeship, then there's the full apprenticeship. There's a two-year degree. And if they really like that, then there's Penn State Erie for a four-year degree," said David Hoffman, AIM director of plastics education and training. "So now there's a stepping stone. The state of Pennsylvania loves that because it shows somebody a career path."
The first class of traditional apprentices has nine men and one woman. The next will have 12 students.
"They're seeing such a good response that they're going to start a second round around September of this year," Hoffman said.
In an interview at AIM, Hoffman, who is also an instructor, recalled how the state-approved apprenticeship quickly came together. Apprentices get intensive instruction while they continue working at their home plants.
A dozen local plastics processors approached the Keystone Community Education Council and said they wanted to develop an apprentice program. Keystone sent out surveys and interviewed plastics executives to find out what skills they were looking for. Hoffman said they got an outline of what employees needed to know in areas such as materials, mold design, processing and quality.
AIM was already offering some of that type of training, for the PTE certificate program. In July 2018, it was invited, along with other service providers and training officials, to put together a plan. Clarion University and AIM worked on a proposal to present to the state.
"It had to be pulled together fast," Hoffman said. "It was very fast, so [AIM] didn't have time to necessarily create a lot of stuff. We looked at their outline, and our courses, and said, 'Yeah we can do that.'"
Clarion University handles instruction for courses that AIM doesn't offer, such as health and safety team building, maintenance and quality systems. AIM focuses on the plastics-specific areas. The classes are held at AIM.
Apprentices get 319 hours of training and 4,000 on-the-job hours.
Hoffman said it's satisfying working with the apprentices, who are experienced plastics workers.
"It's so much fun teaching folks like that, because they're motivated. And to see them blossom in this ... these are going to be some pretty well-rounded folks coming out," he said.
Hoffman happened to walk into the team-building class one day, and he heard a student talk about what the program meant to him.
"I'll never forget, the one gentleman, he goes, 'I see this as my golden ticket. This is a way for me to go beyond, to do better for me and my family.' He's just a shop-floor technician, never had a formal education or anything, but man, he just wants to learn. He wants to do better. And he sees this as an opportunity."
Keystone manages administration, and the agency can help plastics companies get reimbursed for nearly two-thirds of the program's cost. Apprentices can earn Pennsylvania state-registered, industry-centered certifications, and they are eligible to earn credits at Clarion for an associate degree in applied science in industrial technology.
A plastics-specific associate degree could be coming within a year. Hoffman said AIM is talking to Clarion to develop a two-year applied technology degree in plastics processing.
Erie-area processors can get plenty of plastics engineers with four-year degrees from Penn State Erie. But local industry officials say what is greatly lacking are skilled technicians. That's the Holy Grail for the plastics-centric region.
Hoffman said technicians are the missing link. "We're hoping to launch a two-year program with Clarion next spring," he said. Many of the Clarion University courses could be taken online. AIM would hold its classes at its facility for the associate degree, where students could get hands-on experience.