There are approximately 17 million people working in American manufacturing today. Ten percent of them are highly skilled metalworkers who perform stamping and machining operations, including machine building, service and repair, dye making and forming metal objects as small as a dime or as large as the side of an automobile. Formerly, this population of the manufacturing industry was trained via an hourly system where a machinist, for instance, might need 8,000 to 10,000 hours to graduate from the apprentice level. But Stephen Mandes, executive director of the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS), said that while this length of time sounds impressive, it doesn’t necessarily produce measurable results in an industry where every bit counts, and workers need to get it right the first time.
“Apprenticeship is 90 percent on-the-job training and 10 percent classroom instruction, and has traditionally been time- and not competency-based,” Mandes said. “We’re accredited by the American National Standards Institute as a developer of American national standards for this industry. The major trade associations have invested a little over $7.5 million in the development of NIMS national skill standards and related assessments or skill certifications against those standards. Take the national standards and our ability to certify individuals’ skills against the standards, meld them into apprenticeship training, and that’s where we fundamentally change it.”
NIMS convened a panel of industry experts ranging in size from an Ohio company with only six employees to the U.S. Navy. These experts reviewed all apprenticeship training and metalworking and agreed on a set of core competencies for the new system. Those competencies were validated by 200 other companies, and 35 pilots in 14 states tested the system. NIMS will formally launch its competency-based apprenticeship system this fall.
“Now a person in machining would have to demonstrate his or her skills against this agreed-upon set of core competencies on a national scale. As we take this to market, so to speak, we have in machining 24 agreed-upon competencies that apprentices must meet, and we can measure those with NIMS credentials or certifications,” Mandes explained. “Picture two circles on the wall in front of you. One has these NIMS competencies in the middle. Then we draw a larger circle that says company competencies outside that so a company would be free to add its own business requirements to those core competencies. But what we end up with is a national system where every apprentice who is now a NIMS-certified machinist has demonstrated his or her skills against those competencies. It allows them to move faster, come in with advanced standing and gives some horizontal ability to move from one occupation to another where the competencies are similar.”
To earn NIMS certification or credentials, candidates have to demonstrate performance on the shop floor as well as pass a theory exam. “In machining it can be manufacturing with specifications derived from our skill standards, or it can be the setup and operation of various machines,” Mandes said. “The second part to that certification is passing a related theory exam, again designed by industry, piloted by industry, based upon on our skills standards. The theory exam is done online. Tooling University hosts our testing site. The performance part of the exam is done on the shop floor or in a laboratory at a community college or high school. The method of delivering the related theory instruction has changed dramatically because we’re doing everything on a modular basis, so it’s going to have to be delivered on a just-in-time basis.”
The metalworking industry has an established history of certifying its workers skills and using those certifications as a basis for recruiting and hiring prior to implementation of the new competency-based testing system. However, Mandes said that the response to the new system has been favorable.
“I met with a little more than 250 companies, not counting those 35 pilots. I have not run into any opposition. There’s been nothing but support for this,” Mandes said. “We’ve had any number of companies big and small who used to train their employees through apprenticeship training who are now going back to it because this is taking it to a better level for them. Quality companies have changed from time-based programs to this one and accepted it with open arms. We’ve got people who produce surgical devices to people who produce parts for automobiles involved in this, and we’ve had nothing but positive feedback. The fact that we lost no pilots out of 35 says a whole lot. We’re cutting down training time, and improving the results of selection. If they use our credentials to assess people coming in, then they have a clear indication in many cases of what the person is able to do.
“The support that we’ve gotten from the United States Department of Labor has been incredible,” Mandes said. “Not only did they fund this project, they loaned us one of their key employees for 18 months. It’s been a great public/private partnership. They see, just as the industry does, the need to get the higher levels of productivity and this whole struggle that we’re in.”