Training & Education

Importance of innovation

By Udo O.J. Huff, M.ED.

January 2010 - The U.S. forming and fabricating industry is a strong and irreplaceable part of the national economy with a high growth potential at home and on the international level.

But what does the future hold? As with the metals industry overall, a primary factor is the well-trained and experienced--but aging--workforce. Will those with "trade expertise" who will soon be leaving the industry be successfully replaced by newly trained journeypeople? Accordingly, what are the trends and practices for training and education in the forming and fabricating industry?

Traditional U.S. apprenticeship training, as administered by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment & Training Administration, consists of 8,000 hours of on-the-job training, including 567 hours of academic-related instruction. On average, it will take U.S. citizens 4.6 years to complete their apprenticeship.

Further, most U.S. apprentices are 25 to 38 years old.

In comparison, for apprentices in many other countries, the average age is 18 to 25, and it takes two-and-half to three years to complete an apprenticeship training program.

The investment in time and money, for both the employer and the apprentice in the United States, is high and not very attractive.

Technological advancements
How much has technology changed in the U.S. forming and fabricating industry? The acetylene torch still exists, as do bending brakes and anvils. The trend in the industry is high-tech equipment and processes, however. Some of the technologies implemented in the last several decades include laser welding and cutting, waterjet cutting, CNC machine controls, MIG and TIG welding, and robotic welding stations.

How well have new technologies been included in today’s curricula and hands-on training for apprenticeship training programs? Not very, in certain areas.

Cutting-edge manufacturing technologies are an expensive capital investment for any technical college or training institution. Often, the only place where apprentices can receive training for these technologies is the tech center of an equipment manufacturer and only then when a company purchases the equipment.

The way things stand
So what opportunities are available for today’s apprentices in the United States? The National Institute for Metalworking Skills Inc. (NIMS), Fairfax, Va., offers advanced, competency-based apprenticeship training programs for aspiring EDM operators, machinists, tool- and die-makers, mold-makers, precision assemblers, CNC machining operators and press setup operators.

With grants from the U.S. Department of Labor, these new apprenticeship training programs incorporate industry-designed competencies and assessments; national certifications; best-practice, on-the-job training design; related technical instruction, including distance and e-learning; and NIMS-certified "Train-the-OJT Trainer" workshops.

But according to the U.S. Department of Labor, only 13 out of the 50 states have forming and fabricating companies implementing apprenticeship training programs, with a total of 287 apprentices.

Staying nimble
To remain competitive in the fast-paced, ever-evolving industrial world, employers need a highly skilled workforce that’s trained to operate and maintain the state-of-the-art equipment necessary for today’s production work. Additionally, technical staff must be trained to successfully complete various tasks and be able to work in teams.

Further, quick changes in today’s technology challenge the forming and fabricating industry worldwide, demanding innovation and investment. The key for changes in training and development is a businesslike understanding of return on investment to encourage companies to support innovative training.

Throughout the industry, trends are emerging that deal with higher demand for training and how to make it more readily available. Paving the way are distance and e-learning opportunities offered through colleges and training institutions across the country.

Now, there’s also more emphasis on soft skills, such as personal effectiveness, problem solving and business fundamentals, as well as knowledge of the overall industry, manufacturing processes, production, maintenance, the supply chain, quality assurance, and health and safety.

A different approach
One way to train apprentices entails the hybrid learning content structure. This approach uses distance and e-learning, and it requires 5,760 hours of technical training, 4,320 hours of hands-on training and 1,440 hours of academic work.

The idea here is to find a common-sense practice that implements new training trends and strategies in combination with the necessary hands-on training apprentices will need.

With this information in mind, several questions will likely arise in regard to the forming and fabricating industry. Is it important to evaluate the effectiveness of the current apprenticeship training programs? Could an innovative apprenticeship training program enhance the ability to stay competitive in the market? Could innovative training draw in more applicants, thus preparing a new generation of skilled workers for the industry?

By providing apprentices a contemporary training program, they will develop an understanding of the history and impact of technology--in addition to enhanced skills, knowledge of applied academics and a wide range of technical abilities.

It also will enable them to develop problem-solving skills in a systematic fashion, as well as emphasize the importance of creative thinking and a good work ethic.

For the apprentices of the future, a good training program should provide:


  • Emphasis on the preparation of gainful employment
  • Updated academic skills in line with specific occupational skills, defined in applied subject matters
  • Learning experience guided by a professional trainer, monitored occupational exploration and professional development
  • Encouragement for continuous learning and establishment of a link to secondary and postsecondary education
  • If training programs meet these criteria and blend technical training with development of soft skills, they will optimize the apprentice experience and help mold the next generation of skilled workers, who will become productive members of society and make a positive economic impact.

    Cyclical nature
    Apprenticeship programs in the United States have suffered declines over various periods throughout the years.

    In his 1921 book, "American Apprenticeship and Industrial Education," Paul H. Douglas wrote, "[T]he apprenticeship program has declined as industry became more and more specialized and automatic ... the apprentice was only taught a part of the whole process and, in many cases, was actually a worker devoid of training."

    Comparing today’s "Industrial Revolution" with that of the 1800s, it’s clear enormous progress has been made and many successes achieved.

    To paint a complete picture, however, it must be noted that today there’s a lack of skilled workers in almost all trades. This stems from a lack of emphasis on technical education that began to emerge more than 30 years ago.

    Looking at the decline of apprenticeship training programs today, it’s obvious that history repeats itself. There’s going to be a high and then a low.

    But with the historical context and a discussion about the decline of U.S. apprenticeship programs, it’s a challenge to develop objectives for an innovative apprenticeship training program for the forming and fabricating industry. Emphasis on training follows a cycle that depends on many factors.

    At this point, however, it’s clear that apprenticeship training programs, especially in the forming and fabricating industry, could benefit from some innovation. FFJ

    UDO O. J. HUFF is an independent consultant in technical training and development, needs assessments, job analysis, production improvement in manufacturing engineering, Six Sigma and kaizen experience, adult education and apprenticeship training. He has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Bowling Green State University.

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    Fabricators and Erectors Work Together to Shape the Future

    Udo O.J. Huff, M.ED.


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