Aspen Equipment Takes on Skills Gap with New Training Program
Meeting the challenge of a skilled worker shortage head-on, Aspen Equipment Company, based in Bloomington, Minnesota, is developing a comprehensive program of in-house training in cooperation with community colleges, and out-reach to high schools to find, develop and retain the quality workforce it needs.
The company, which outfits, customizes and services trucks for the construction and transportation industries, has felt the lack, particularly in hiring mechanics, installers and CAD designers.
Todd Foster, Vice President of Operations, doesn't see a problem with motivation in the work force. "Most people want to work and succeed at their jobs" he said, but a lack of skills can sometimes hold them back. There is a lot more involved in jobs today, with the increasing complexity of technology built into the trucks and equipment. "There are so many high-tech elements that it's not just a simple "˜go do it' type of job anymore. I sincerely believe that it is our responsibility as the employer to provide the tools people need to be successful, training is just one of the important tools in the box."
The situation puts new responsibilities on management, Foster said. "It's fine to give somebody a computer. If you don't teach them how to use it, it's not doing any good."
Assembling a Program
Starting earlier this year, Foster developed a vision for a program that would include:
Job Safety: Safety in the workplace, OSHA compliance and personal protection
Tool Usage: Proper, safe and efficient operation of tools used on the job
Job Skills: 12V electrical, Fluid Power/Hydraulics, Pneumatics/Air), Fabrication, General Installation, Welding and Troubleshooting for the truck equipment industry
Some of this would come easily, Foster found. "None of what we're doing is so specialized that the curriculum is not out there, it's just a matter of pulling it all together for our specific application." He put together a first-stage electrical course himself, "This is how to read a wire schematic, strip a wire, decide which gauge to use, how to properly solder it."
On the other hand, "I didn't realize at first how big it would be." With more than 100 employees in Bloomington, plus two other locations, the need to update classes, audit job skills, document the training, etc., Foster soon realized that organizing and implementing the program as an ongoing activity would require a dedicated training director. The company recently hired Dan Olson, who has the right combination of industry knowledge and teaching ability for the position.
Reaching the Next Generation
Reaching future generations of workers is also important. Foster said outreach to high schools has two main goals: To expose students to the idea of a career in the trades, so that everyone understands that there is a valid career opportunity there and to each some of the basic work skills that are required on the job, to make training easier for those who do pursue it and are hired.
Foster feels there is a lack of prestige in blue collar jobs even though many industrial positions pay as well or better than the white collar jobs. Those who can do the math might see that the return on investment is much greater for technical schools credentials than for a university degree. Getting that message to high school students is important for employers.
Aspen Equipment hopes to contribute to the Minnesota Programs of Study process that helps students explore careers and plan pathways to those careers. Students lose interest if they can't see that the subject matter is going to apply in their everyday life outside of school, Foster noted. "People are starting to realize that it's a not a bad attitude, maybe that's a level of maturity," he said.
Once students are on a path to the trades it is important that the technical colleges have curricula that are closely aligned to employer needs. Along with Steve Jensen, the company's Service Manager, Foster has met with an advisory board to look at the feasibility of a two-year degree in industrial trades closely related to truck equipment. The program would also include forklift and aerial device lifts, where there is crossover.
Improving Workers at Aspen
Working closely with Anoka-Ramsey Community College, Aspen Equipment has received a significant grant from the State of Minnesota for a training program. The first step was to bring Anoka instructors to train welders at Aspen Equipment.
"This is to get our existing welders to the next level in certification process," Foster said. A beginners' class is also offered for employees who are not welders, but are interested. The training includes blue print reading, math for welders and different types of welding such as stick welding, gas tungsten arc welding, shielded metal arc welding and oxy-fuel welding. Aspen Equipment employees can become certified welders while attending classes on-site for free during work hours. Employees responded enthusiastically to the first training sessions.
Joe Cady, who has worked at Aspen Equipment for more than 14 years, wanted to build on welding skills he had learned previously in college. "Aspen Equipment purchased a powerful state-of-the-art welder with digital controls and I'm excited to master it," Cady said. "It's modern equipment with more advanced technology than what I studied in college." Cady is working toward certification as a welder, which is required at Aspen to perform structural welding, such as welding a pull plate on the back of a truck or welding a dump body to hinges.
Jeffrey Smith came to Aspen from an artistic ornamental pipe welding and polishing background. He wants to keep learning and building on the extensive welding skills he's developed in his 30-year career. "I'm excited to participate in the hands-on deeper functions that modern welders perform, such as changing the welding arc through different set-ups where you couldn't do that with older welders," said Smith. "I'm proud to be a part of a team that produces a higher quality truck than what I've seen the competition put out."
Foster said it is a struggle for companies to find the right balance between the many benefits of providing training and the cost of providing it. He estimates that when Aspen Equipment's program is fully implemented the average employee might spend two to three weeks a year in training. "That's two to three weeks a year not applying time to a billable job," he said. "That's a large investment. But long-term, if you put your money where your mouth is, you will see the benefit."
Another concern with enhancing worker skills is that employees could then take their valuable skills and leave. But Foster sees the issue of retention as within the employer's control. "If their value has gone up and they leave, then shame on us," he said. Increased skills should be compensated. "If their value has gone up and we don't pay for that, if we haven't created an environment where they will want to stay, then again, shame on us."
Changing the culture of a workplace is a long-term process, Foster said, but he believes Aspen Equipment is on the way. "By this time next year we plan on having several classes done. We have a training director in place, and all employees will have gone through several stages by that time."