Employee training through apprenticeship programs

Published On: July 1, 2024Categories: Features
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While some organizations are still grappling with quiet quitting or the aftereffects of the “Great Resignation,” fabricators and textile and fabric manufacturers are facing a somewhat different situation—bringing new employees into the industry, which is a predicament that is becoming increasingly important to address.

“Many of our textiles manufacturers have workforces comprised of older populations that are looking at retirement in the next five to 10 years,” says Robert Finnegan, director of education and workforce development for Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) based in Cambridge, Mass. “The industry staying at full capacity is dependent upon attracting a younger workforce. However, attracting this younger demographic can be challenging.”

Finnegan says that some in the industry are tackling this issue by establishing apprenticeship and internship programs.

Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) has launched several efforts to attract young people to the textiles industry. One of these is the two-week Advanced Functional Fabrics Workshop where students conceptualize and create prototype solutions to address specific problems posed by companies involved in the program. Photo: AFFOA

Programs provide a road map

Consider Global Impex Inc. USA, headquartered in St. Cloud, Minn. The mill-direct company has warehouses around the country, providing custom fabrics to a diverse range of clients, says King Mukherjee, president. The company currently has 10–15 full-time employees and an apprenticeship/internship program that involves five to seven college students.

“In the fabrication industry, apprenticeship programs are necessary,” Mukherjee explains. “I decided to create this program as a long-term approach to help spread the company globally. The internship program provides a road map to giving college students and young professionals a platform to experience the textiles industry.”

The program, developed in 2018, runs between 15 and 18 weeks, with interns expected to work 15 to 20 hours per week. Interns are recruited through relationships established with major universities across the country. The work is remote/virtual and flexible, with the hours individually determined by each intern.

Regardless of previous industry experience, new hires at Signature CanvasMakers must complete an apprenticeship program. Ongoing training is another way the company ensures fabrication quality and consistency. Here, employees are shown participating in one such training session. Photo: Signature CanvasMakers

Essential skill areas such as time management, development of interpersonal/intrapersonal skills and networking are covered, along with exposing interns to different companies in the industry. Upon program completion, interns receive a certificate as well as a stipend and possibly a bonus.

“Progress is benchmarked by the amount of work they complete each week and how fast they get the work done,” Mukherjee says. “There is an opportunity for an extension depending on each intern’s performance.”

He says the program has helped the company and its employees in multiple ways, including through networking, diversity and mentorship. He’s also added to his workforce by hiring several interns, including one who is now a general manager.

Offering paid options

Mary Koutras, research and development manager for Duro-Last, says her company also has found new employees through its internship programs. Headquartered in Saginaw, Mich., Duro-Last (a division of Holcim Solutions and Products US LLC) manufactures single-ply PVC roofing membranes for flat- and low-slope-roof commercial buildings for roofing contractors and building owners in the construction industry. The company has 900 full- and part-time employees, with a mix of seasoned staff and newer arrivals.

The company has developed three paid internship programs, says Koutras. One is the “traditional style” where interns balance their college courses with an adjusted work schedule designed to accommodate their classes. Another was created for interns who can work during the summer only. Both of these programs have been in place for more than 15 years.

A more recent one, initiated in 2020 in conjunction with the company’s Research and Development (R&D) department, seeks to provide interns with a more robust R&D experience and project continuity. It has a rotating schedule of three months of schooling followed by three months of an internship, a cycle repeating and lasting throughout the intern’s entire college career. Interns participating in this program are asked to stay for at least two three-month rotations. Koutras says the summer interns have come back for multiple summers and the majority of the rotational interns have returned.

Duro-Last offers three types of internship programs for university/college students; the most recent one developed in conjunction with the company’s R&D department. Here, a direct report, shown on the right, is training an intern on the use of a lab scale extruder. Photo: Duro-Last

Time requirements vary. The average number of hours interns attending classes work is around 20 hours per week, although this can be adjusted depending on the intern’s college schedule, says Koutras. Summer internships are 40 hours weekly; rotational internships are 40 hours weekly with the chance for overtime and three days off for the three working months. At the end of the work term, interns deliver a presentation to key stakeholders, showing what they’ve accomplished as well as sharpening their presentation skills.

“The last three years have been disruptive, from COVID, labor shortages, raw-material supply shortages etc.,” says Koutras. “A benefit we had due to our program is that during the labor shortages, we were able to hire two of the interns when they graduated. We are creating a pipeline of future employees.”

Rewarding skill and efficiency

Signature CanvasMakers has taken a different approach by implementing an apprenticeship program that all new hires, regardless of prior experience, must go through, says CEO Charlene Clark. Headquartered in Hampton, Va., Signature designs and manufactures canvas and textile products such as enclosures, covers, tops and cushions for the government/military, commercial, recreational and residential markets.

As of this writing, the company has 10 full-time and three part-time employees, with three full-time employees and one part-timer in training. Everyone starts out as an apprentice. For example, those on the sewing team must learn all the hems, seams and techniques that go into making their products, says Clark.

“Our pattern/installation team learns the tools, fasteners and other materials we work with, as well as techniques such as drilling and tapping metal,” she continues. “Our digital team learns how to apply definable CAD techniques that increase in complexity to build the products we produce.”

At Signature CanvasMakers, once new hires have completed the apprenticeship training, they are given a certificate of achievement and a pay raise. They can then begin working toward their certification levels, which can take several years to complete. Photo: Signature CanvasMakers

Once a new hire has satisfactorily completed the apprenticeship training, they are given a certificate of achievement and a pay raise. They then can begin working toward their certification levels. There is no timeline for apprenticeship training completion, says Clark, but most finish within one to three weeks depending on the department and the skills required.

There are four certification levels, covering 20 different project types between them. These fall into the general categories of covers, tops, enclosures, dodgers and cushions/upholstery. As workers move through the levels—department managers oversee progress and provide support, feedback and ongoing training—the complexity and demands also increase.

For example, those vying for Level 4 qualification must be able to manage workflow and train and lead other team members. Moving from Level 1 to Level 4 certification can take several years, says Clark, adding that upon completion of each level, the team member receives another certificate of appreciation and a pay raise.

“Most people don’t come to work for us having any experience in the marine canvas industry,” says Clark, explaining the inspiration behind the program’s creation. “They have never been exposed to the type of work we do and the type of products we create. In order to ensure fabrication consistency at the level of quality our customers expect, everyone needs to be on the same page with what we do and how we do it.”

Efficiency scores are tracked, with each member given an efficiency goal based on their skill level. Team members who exceed their assigned levels are rewarded at the end of each month with various prizes.

“Efficiency/proficiency rates are calculated based on our time standards versus the actual time it takes a team member to complete,” Clark explains. “If we aren’t measuring their progress in a meaningful and timely manner, they have no way of gauging whether they are improving or not, and we have no way to reward them for their success.”  

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Seal Beach, Calif.

LaPorte Products in North Charleston, S.C., has hosted community sewing classes to find potential employees.

SIDEBAR: Your future workforce might live next door

Marine fabricators interested in connecting with prospective employees may not need to look farther than their neighbors. 

In 2020, Darren LaPorte, owner of LaPorte Products in North Charleston, S.C., recognized the importance of community when his shop needed sewers. He hosted a free two-week community sewing class to introduce folks to the company and, ideally, to find potential employees.

“We did the classes in the middle of the day, feeling that if people were showing up for classes at that time, they probably didn’t have a job,” says LaPorte. “We’d let them sew for two weeks and have them start with a duffle bag, and then we had them sew some of our stock items to show them how it would be if they were working in a production manner. Then we would see if they were interested in a job.”

The classes were held in the shop’s loft space and primarily attracted people between the ages of 30 to 50. The sewers were given a project to work on and were taught the differences between home and industrial sewing machines. 

“If they wanted to have the classes extended,” says LaPorte, “it would cost them $75 for another week. If they wanted another two weeks, it would be $150. But the first two weeks were free so we could get people in who might not be able to afford it.”

When the classes ended, the company hired three of the sewers. LaPorte says he plans to offer more of these community sewing classes when the company needs additional sewing operators. He is also considering partnering with other companies in the area to co-host public sewing classes. 

Reaching out to schools

LaPorte Products also attends job fairs at community and technical colleges and offers tours of its facility to those interested in the industry. The company also regularly reaches out to local high schools to organize student programs to introduce students to the industry as they consider their post-graduate options. 

Joe Gallagher, president and founder of TopStitch Upholstery CNY and Street Dreams CNY Inc. in Syracuse, N.Y., also actively works with local schools to stimulate interest in the marine and auto upholstery fabrication industry. 

He is currently in discussions with Onondaga Community College (OCC) in Syracuse about adding an auto upholstery specialization or certificate to the school’s auto body program because “there are not enough upholsterers in the U.S.” 

Students enrolled in the program would be able to complete their 400 required internship hours at Gallagher’s 30,000 square-foot facility. 

“We plan to attract future employees from the program, starting with interns and cultivating them into long-term employees,” says Gallagher. “We look forward to working with OCC on this program expansion and developing a solid relationship with the school to provide qualified people to fill a large void in the auto upholstery sector.” 

Megan Phillips is the assistant editor of Specialty Fabrics Review magazine.