Williamston, Mich. — The average age of workers on the floor at Bekum America Corp.'s manufacturing facility has gone down.
The German maker of extrusion blow molding machinery credits the workforce age drop — from 55 in 2014 to 42 today — to its apprenticeship program, a four-year, 8,000-hour structured training strategy launched in 1994.
The program is registered with the U.S. Department of Labor and includes five areas of study: machinist, machine builder, industrial electrician, steel fabricator/welder and mechatronics. Typically, apprentices work 40 hours a week at Bekum and take classes at Lansing Community College, where they are required to earn 59 credits and maintain a 3.0 grade point average. Bekum covers all tuition and material expenses.
Upon completion, apprentices are issued a journeyman certificate. They can also take an additional three to four classes to earn an associate degree and graduate debt-free thanks to Bekum's tuition assistance program.
Earlier this year, Bekum invested about $75,000 in an apprentice training center at the company's 115,000-square-foot facility and U.S. headquarters in Williamston, a small Michigan town east of Lansing. The center — tucked away in a quiet corner of the site's manufacturing floor — is where new apprentices spend the first nine to 12 months with a dedicated instructor.
The center opened in February and is led by Patrick Smith, a former toolmaker for General Motors Co. who later taught manufacturing at a nearby high school. Smith is tasked with bringing the apprentices up to a basic common knowledge level while using a German apprenticeship model, which is more heavily focused on hand skills and hand tools, he said.
To date, the company has graduated 21 apprentices — 15 of whom are still employed with Bekum. Seventeen apprentices are working through the program now. So, in total, Bekum has 32 employees — about 24 percent of its 134-person workforce — who have either graduated from or are currently enrolled in the apprenticeship program.
"It's a significant number," said Steven London, president and chief operating officer of Bekum America, the U.S. operation of German parent company Bekum Maschinenfabriken GmbH, during an on-site interview at the headquarters.
He said the apprenticeship program has by far been the biggest contributor to Bekum's workforce since the company graduated its first cohort of apprentices in 2000.
London — who has logged more than 30 years with the company, starting out as a controls design engineer before earning his way into the C-suite — also gives credit to the team running the day-to-day procedures and to Martin Stark, chairman of Bekum America and a member of the Plastics Hall of Fame, who jump-started the German-style apprenticeship program at the company 25 years ago.
"And to the ownership of the company for taking a long look — and not at the short term, the next sixth months, [but] looking out as a way to grow a business in the long term," London said of the strategy.