Closing the manufacturing skill gap: A Q&A with Cheryl Neiheisel of Richards Industries

June 24, 2015

Cheryl Neiheisel, Vice President of Human Resources at Richards Industries located in Cincinnati, Ohio, spoke with BLU about the critical role sector partnerships play in meeting the workforce needs of the manufacturing industry. Cheryl is currently serving as the Employer Chair for the PCW Advanced Manufacturing Industry Partnership Team and is a member of the Partners for a Competitive Workforce Partners Council.

Can you tell me a little bit about your company and its work? 

Richards Industries has approximately 150 employees. We are a leading provider of a variety of industrial valves for the chemical, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, and food processing industries. Other sectors include paper products, tire and rubber, machinery and electrical equipment, transportation equipment, and energy industries. We're dedicated to finding new ways to improve our manufacturing processes, our existing products, creating new products, reaching new markets, and responding faster to our customers' needs. We’re also known for our company culture. Our employees really enjoy working here, which has helped with recruiting qualified workers. Still, we have trouble finding workers who are skilled in manufacturing.

What positions was Richards Industries struggling to fill? Is there a particular credential you wanted your workers to obtain?

We've had difficulty finding skilled machine operators. In the past we've hired people with no skills and trained them internally with job shadowing, on-the-job training, and some in-house classroom work. The learning curve can be several years. It has become more and more difficult to find machine operators and we have to do something about this because a significant percentage of our workforce will be nearing or at retirement age in the near future.

How did Richards Industries get involved with Cincinnati State and the Advanced Manufacturing Industry Partnership? Can you describe the apprenticeship program?

I was introduced to Partners for a Competitive Workforce—a partnership in the Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana tristate region focused on closing the skill gap—a few years ago and joined their Advanced Manufacturing Industry Partnership team. This team meets with educational providers, workforce investment boards, and other companies to help build a skilled manufacturing workforce, and through that relationship I was introduced to Jim Bax, a business manager at Cincinnati State’s Workforce Development Center. Cincinnati State was in process of developing a Machine Operator Level 1 (MO1) program at that time and the companies who are active with the Advanced Manufacturing Industry Partnership were heavily involved with design of the curriculum. We met with Cincinnati State on a regular basis to help design a program that was general enough to apply to most manufacturing companies and meet basic qualifications.

When the MO1 class was developed, Richards sent 10 incumbent workers (and myself!) through that class. Since that time we have had several incumbent workers go through the MO Level 2 course as well. We also hired two students who were enrolled in the class at Cincinnati State on their own.

The Advanced Manufacturing Industry Partnership then created a year-long apprenticeship program that includes MO1 and MO2 curriculum at Cincinnati State as well as ongoing on-the-job training. Students work four, ten-hour days and then attend classes on Fridays or in the evenings. When they complete the program, students receive NIMS certifications as well as college credit. At Richards, a trainee moves up from a classification 1 to a machinist classification 3 within 12-18 months of being hired when going through the apprenticeship program. The move to classification 3 includes significant pay increase as well.

How were you able to pay to enroll your workers in the program? Would you have been able to send them without this funding? 

At the time we sent our first 10 workers through the program, we would not have been able to do it without outside help to fund the program, namely from Partners for a Competitive Workforce and Hamilton County. The cost at that time was $2,800 per person for just MO1. The cost is currently around $4,000 for MO1 and another $4,000 for MO2. We were able to send two of the original 10 back to MO2, but without additional funding, we weren’t in a position to send the additional eight folks through MO2, so we have had to rely solely on on-the-job training.

It is worth noting, however, that when we did a cost-return on investment analysis on the 10 trainees we sent through the program and they were able to reach the minimum qualifications for a machine operation at Richards are more productive in a quicker amount of time. But with the increase in cost for the apprenticeship program, we have to evaluate sending additional new hires through the program on a case by case basis, depending on budget, how business is doing, etc. The availability of training grant funds significantly increases the potential for us to send folks through the program. We need funding to help companies—especially smaller companies who don’t have a big training budget—to get workers without a manufacturing background through some kind of schooling and technical training.

How will you meet your future workforce needs in manufacturing?

We will definitely need additional people in the future. The skill gap is the biggest obstacle that we see in the future of manufacturing. A large number of folks in manufacturing are nearing retirement age and there just aren’t very many skilled workers available in the market anymore. We are going to have to rely on training of some kind to help shorten the learning curve so people are up to speed and productive as quickly as possible.

We’ve been working to fill that gap and to educate schools, counselors, parents, and kids that manufacturing is a great opportunity. Manufacturing needs a face-lift when it comes to image. It isn’t the dirty unstable industry previous generations thought it was. There are very good careers available for those who are skilled in machining and programming. The jobs are stable and the atmosphere is clean and safe. For example, Richards Industries recently celebrated 4 million hours without a lost time accident/injury! And we have never had a layoff or a short work week in the history of our company. The pay is good. For someone with the very basic Machining qualifications (where they would be at the end of the Apprenticeship program) is approximately $32,000 start, and goes up from there based on skill, performance, etc. Some of our long term machinists who are qualified at programming, etc., are making approximately $50,000 and more with overtime. If you have the skills and you’re a hard worker, a career is there for you.