I have read many articles on how to approach the ongoing apprentice training problem and, as a result, I have come up with some thoughts that I would like to share with the industry.
My son graduated from the Tooling and Manufacturing Association (TMA) (Park Ridge, IL) program last year, and I noticed that the training he received during the past four years wasn't much different in its approach from the training that I received in the sixties. Today, the world is a different place - it's facing issues like global business and a shortage of trainees. So why does this industry take the same approach in training its apprentices as it did 30 years ago?
Last year, I had the opportunity to be a part of the trade mission to Asia sponsored by the Society of the Plastics Industry (Washington, D.C.), which was one of the highlights of my business career. I was so affected by what I saw that I left Asia with more than 12 hours of videotape. But from everything that I witnessed, it was the apprentice training program in Singapore that made the strongest impression.
The trip began in Taiwan, which was exactly what I envisioned moldmaking in Asia to look like. The shops were small, and I shared standing room with a wandering dog in one of the facilities that we visited. Another shop was in the middle of nowhere - an hour ride down a dirt road and across a small bridge barely wide enough for the car to pass. The shop was a newly constructed steel structure and the owner was in the process of moving his equipment from an old barn to his new one. His EDM machine was sitting in the front yard covered in dust, but despite this more primitive environment, on the inside there were computers that were able to fully read the database disk that I had brought. Training in Taiwan appears similar to this country - taking place on the job. After two days in Taiwan, I joined the rest of the group in Hong Kong, where we visited the Polytechnic University. This was a true college environment, similar to the U.S. It was impressive, but there was nothing that stood out. After a few days in Hong Kong, we left for Singapore.
An Industry Eye-Opener
It was in Singapore that the workforce training differed the most from training in the U.S. The things I saw not only excited me, but also left me asking, "Why is it like this here, but not in the U.S.?" Our first stop was at GINTIC Institute of Manufacturing Technology. This is a government institute set up to assist the plastic and moldmaking industries. Here they work on large-scale projects and join large companies in developing software, e-commerce projects, CAD/CAM systems and other manufacturing processes.
Our next stop was at the Singapore Precision Engineering and Tool Association facility. This is the school that impressed me the most, and the one most unlike anything that I have seen in the U.S. Its system is similar to the U.S., where students who are not necessarily academically proficient attend a trade school. This school accepted students right out of high school.
The director of the school - an interesting individual, well versed in what needs to be done to prepare young people for a future in manufacturing - explained the workings of the facility. Our tour started with the classrooms, which were similar to classrooms in the U.S., but this is where the similarity ended. The first floor shop area was dramatically different. The room was about 40,000 square feet and was filled with row upon row of machinery. This floor was for entry-level training for the first- and second-year students. It contained basic hand feed equipment - mills, lathes, grinders and the usual equipment you would find in a shop.
Not only was the amount of equipment astonishing, but all of it also was up-to-date. In a U.S. shop, training facilities generally have donated equipment from corporations that is usually old and in marginal condition.
There also was a classroom full of computers - the CAD design lab. There weren't just 10 stations, there were 25 to 35 with young students busy designing molds and components.
The second floor was even more striking. This area was for the third- and fourth-year students. Here, there was row after row of CNC equipment. Not only did the building have a vast supply, but there also were many models of the same machine. There were five different manufacturers of EDM equipment, as well as CNC lathes, grinders, jig bores, jig grinders and OD-ID grinders - everything conceivable for first-rate training. The CAD lab also had more than 30 stations for programming the CNC equipment - all with the latest technology.
On the other end of the room were four molding presses. After a student built a mold, he would take it to the lab for a tryout and some fine-tuning. Each student must troubleshoot their own tool - it must conform to certain cycle speed and functionality requirements. In this way, the students receive a first-hand exposure to the whole process of moldmaking. When a student leaves this facility, he will go to the potential employer ready to hit the shop floor as a profit-producing employee.
In comparison, I've seen many of our own mold shops closing - shops like Hobson Mold. Why? It's not hard to figure out. When a typical U.S. shop takes a person out of high school, it has to train him, which means that he makes more scrap than product for the first few years. The journeyman moldmaker spends his time working with the apprentice, so the shop also is losing that person's productive time. In today's business climate, this no longer works. We need a system to bring trained young people to the shop floor ready to produce. It is possible - they're doing it in Singapore.
What Can You Do?
So what is the moral of this story? If I were a moldmaker, I would be turning in my sleep with worry. All the Chinese need to do is improve their communication skills, decrease the time it takes to ship molds to the U.S., and standardize their components with U.S. components, and our moldmaking industry could be in a world of hurt.
The "powers that be" in the moldmaking industry - like the associations - should bring this up in Washington. And since the attitude lately has been to educate our young, we should seize this opportunity and use the training in Singapore as a model to start with before it is too late. We need to build state-of-the-art technical institutes where we can train not only moldmakers, but also trades from other industries. Our young people need a place that they can go for serious technical training.
The threat is very real. In this country, we always seem to be standing on the pier after the ship leaves; we are always playing catch-up and allowing ourselves to fall behind in industries where we should lead. Yes, the Chinese have government funding. But I always hear about all of the money available in Washington for funding special projects - so let's get some! The moldmaking industry needs an overhaul right now. If you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you have always gotten.