Mark Weissenbuehler admits he is no longer exclusively an in-it-for-the-money entrepreneur, determined to rapidly grow his business.
Instead, he finds his satisfaction watching young employees grow, especially fledgling apprentices as they learn a craft from the seasoned guys on the big floor of his manufacturing plant in Pacific.
“Not one of those apprentices knew how to read a tape measure when they came in here, and now they’re running hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of machinery,” Weissenbuehler told Gov. Jay Inslee last Friday, before they toured work stations at American Structures & Design, Inc., a manufacturer and distributor of aluminum railing, balcony and sunshade systems. “They’re making parts that make us hundreds of thousands of dollars, and that’s the exciting thing today, watching these kids.
“It’s really a rush to see that happen,” Weissenbuehler added.
Weissenbuehler’s company has benefited from its participation in Washington’s Aerospace Joint Apprenticeship Committee (AJAC) program, which allows young apprentices to graduate from high school with college credit, a journey-level production technician credential, and approximately $28,000 in wages over the 2,000-hour, advanced-manufacturing apprenticeship.
The apprenticeship program is important to employers like Weissenbuehler, as they look to bridge the skills gap. Manufacturers face the challenge of finding and filling jobs with skilled workers. For many companies, an increase in impending retirements, emerging technologies, and a greater production demand have created challenges for building a skilled, 21st century workforce.
April marks one year since the launch of the youth apprenticeship program, which combines traditional classroom learning and paid, on-the-job training for high school students. Inslee ushered in the Career Connect Washington Task Force last year to map out the state’s next steps to expand the apprenticeship program.
School districts, community colleges and technical schools are partnering with companies in the program. Auburn schools have yet to join the network, but AJAC leaders are exploring a wider recruiting reach.
So far, Inslee likes what he sees in the program.
“We’re focusing on creating more opportunities to connect young people with great careers,” Inslee said. “We know that a four-year track is not the only way to succeed in our state. And for too long, we have been creating this implicit tacit message to our youth.”
Weissenbuehler recognizes that apprenticeship is a good pipeline to find and train employees.
“Not every kid in high school is going off to college,” he said. “And here … they learn a craft and a trade that they can apply for any job in the world.”
The challenge, Weissenbuehler said, is to motivate and keep young employees engaged. Not all stick with the program, he said.
“We may lose them, but we leave them with skills,” he said. “We are doing our part. We help make them mature adults, (so they) know how to make a living for themselves and their families, and are able to go elsewhere and still retain a job and support themselves.”
In addition to obtaining journey-level certification as a master tradesperson, the AJAC program sets the apprentice on a path toward an associate’s degree that can articulate into a four-year degree.
The apprenticeship program has served Tacoma’s Sean Colyer well.
“It’s not like having a job at McDonald’s,” he said. “It’s a career path, which is very cool.”
Seth Hamilton enjoys learning the intricacies of being a computer numerically controlled (CNC) machinist, making parts for general assembly. The program has given him the foundation to a marketable career.
“Great job,” he said. “Everything’s above par.”
Weissenbuehler credits his employees for being willing to work with apprentices daily on the floor. The young hands have brought energy, enthusiasm and potential to the workplace.
“The future is these young guys. There’s no question about it in our minds,” Weissenbuehler said. “We need more of these guys. … We’re excited to see how these young guys are growing.”