A return to apprenticeships delivers skilled workers to Pratt & Whitney

Community college partnership a key to growth in Maine.

By John Mayo September 11, 2015

As aircraft-engine maker Pratt & Whitney looks to ramp-up engine production to a level that the company hasn’t seen in decades, it has committed significant resources to modernizing its manufacturing processes and expanding its assembly and supply chain operations. Partnering with local community colleges to develop skills of future manufacturing workers is critical to the company’s success, and it has created programs near its facilities to train current and future employees.  

One example, which will benefit from the coming growth, is the company’s Pratt & Whitney-North Berwick (PWNB), Maine, facility. The plant is the largest manufacturing facility under one roof in the state, and manufactures and repairs commercial and military aircraft parts. "Our challenge is to add a significant number of skilled manufacturing employees to meet the demand," said Leo Dionne, manager of strategic sourcing/transitions at Pratt & Whitney. "We got together as a team to talk about our employment strategy and develop a plan. It’s been a tremendous challenge to find skilled tradespeople not just in Maine, but across the country." To that end, Pratt & Whitney has community college partnerships near its facilities in several other states, including Connecticut, Georgia, and Florida.

Dionne is uniquely qualified to lead a "transition" effort, as he’s seen a lot of it over his 31-yr career at North Berwick. "I can understand what these new employees are going through as I started my career here as a machinist in a 4-year apprentice program," he said. Over the years, Dionne has held managerial positions in engineering, shop supervision, business unit management, and quality. In his transition role, he’s helping to manage the transformation of the company.

In the beginning, PWNB was able to recruit from local businesses, but soon found it was running out of candidates with necessary skill sets. That’s when a unique public-private partnership was formed with Pratt & Whitney, the state of Maine, and York County Community College (YCCC) in Wells, Maine.

The North Berwick facility is benefiting from two programs being run in conjunction with the local school. The first, a six-week on boarding training program, is structured to give new employees all the basic skills to become a machine operator, including an introduction to quality and environment and health and safety concepts, which are critical building blocks to a successful career at Pratt & Whitney. The program includes classroom learning, as well as exposure to manufacturing techniques both at the PWNB facility and YCCC’s modern machine shop at its Sanford, Maine, facility. Over the past 2 years, approximately 30 employees have graduated, with all of them being placed in manufacturing positions at PWNB.

Expanding apprenticeships

The second, more ambitious course is an 8,000-hr apprenticeship program in which Pratt & Whitney employees take part in a trades technology curriculum that results in an Associate of Applied Science degree. While the program gives participants exposure to the latest in manufacturing technology, it also incorporates an academics portion and rotational assignments throughout the North Berwick facility. Participants spend their 8-hr day learning and working in both the facility and the classroom. Fifteen students are set to graduate in the first wave early next year and will be placed in assignments that use their manufacturing, business, and leadership skills.

"Given the growth path we’re on over the next several years, our partnership with the state of Maine and the community college system is a crucial part of our employment strategy," said PWNB General Manager Mike Papp. "YCCC’s ability to accommodate and tailor its curriculum to support our on boarding and apprenticeship programs is proving to be very effective in helping our facility train new employees for technical positions with a minimal negative impact to the facility.

"With the apprenticeship program, we’ve been able to work with the school to create a degree program which complements our technical apprenticeship program and also to create a curriculum comprised of both Pratt & Whitney-specific and YCCC-specific content. The jointly developed curriculum is intended to give new employees critical foundational skills as they begin their assigned tasks," he added. "Both programs are critical in helping us prepare employees to serve our requirements at all levels of our hourly workforce, while also preparing them for possible entry into our salaried workforce down the road."

From massage to manufacturing

Apprentice Lauren Johnson had been a Pratt & Whitney employee for about 1½ years when she saw a posting about the program. She took an entrance test, passed it, and is now part of the first apprenticeship class. "This is my first time going through a formal college program," Johnson said. "Not only will I come out with an associates degree, but also the education I’m receiving in machine skills, academics, business processes, and people and management skills is preparing me for my career."

Johnson said she’s come a long way already. "Prior to working at Pratt & Whitney I was a massage therapist, and I decided it was time for a career change. When I first joined the company, I was overwhelmed with the size, the noise, and the number of people. But my dad was a mechanic and I’m a very hands-on person and enjoy the manufacturing side very much." Johnson can’t stress enough how valuable her training in people skills has been. "You need to make a good reputation for yourself," she added. "Understanding the business and the technology is crucial. But it’s just as important to be able to relate and communicate and establish relationships with all the people with their different personalities that you encounter. You can’t be productive if you don’t connect with those around you."

While the on boarding program addresses the lion’s share of manufacturing employment needs at the facility, the apprenticeship program’s success is crucial to replacing high-level hourly leaders, many of whom are beginning to retire after long careers with the company. And the right curriculum is the key.

"When we began working with YCCC, we formed a cross-functional team at Pratt made up of shop operators, supervisors, working leaders, business unit leaders, and others who had come up through the ranks, to help build the right curriculum," Dionne said."We answered the basic question:’In which attributes and skill sets do we need to train new employees?’ Then we got together with the school and asked, ‘Can you develop a curriculum to support this?’ YCCC has been very responsive to our needs and we’ve been very pleased with the results."

A career opportunity

Johnny Campbell, a machine cell operator in welding, joined the company in January 2015 and immediately joined the on boarding program. "I had been welding at another company and came to Pratt & Whitney looking for more welding experience," Campbell said. "The program has taught me so much more-from how to operate different machinery, to manufacturing terminology, to blueprint reading, to measuring product tolerances. It definitely gave me a broader picture of the manufacturing opportunities across the company."

"These programs are offering not just a job opportunity, but a career opportunity," Dionne said. "Given the advanced state of manufacturing technology, we need highly skilled, business-oriented people. We’re starting at the beginning, investing in adaptable, hard-working individuals who want to have careers with us."

Dionne said the company is now reaching out at the high school level, meeting with high school counselors within a 30- to 40-mile radius of the facility. "For years, high schools have been driving students toward 4-yr colleges and away from the trades, believing that industry was dead. We’re a testament to the fact that it’s alive and well and offering highly skilled, meaningful career opportunities. Partnerships like the one we have with YCCC prove that it can work."

John Mayo is a contributing writer.