by Lara Copeland, contributing writer, Inside Rubber

Between ever-changing technology and the retirement of a substantial portion of the skilled workforce, the US is experiencing a shortage of qualified workers in manufacturing. To help fill the thousands of manufacturing jobs that remain vacant each year, initiatives are being set in place across the country to close the skills gap.

The Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (KY FAME) is one such initiative where students, employers and educators work together for the benefit t of all. According to its website, “KY FAME is a partnership of regional manufacturers whose purpose is to implement career pathway, apprenticeship style educational programs that will create a pipeline of highly skilled workers.” One company, DESMA USA, operating out of Boone County, Kentucky, started seeing many of its longtime employees announce their retirement plans and turned to KY FAME for help.

“For years, we were fortunate with a stable workforce as tenured technicians, and experienced technologists established our company as a service-oriented organization,” DESMA USA President and CEO Scott Early said. “But now, the average age of a DESMA USA employee is 48 years old.”

Wanting to secure its future, the company decided to act. In 2016, management began discussions about hiring a high school graduate, and Early inquired with the local high school regarding potential graduates with mechanical aptitude and a desire to learn from the ground up with a company like DESMA. But, that approach did not work. “High schools really are not in the placement business of upcoming or past graduates,” he said, “and that is when we found the KY FAME program.”

Partnering with KY FAME

DESMA USA joined KY FAME in December 2017 and, in the spring of 2018, a team of managers agreed to sponsor a graduating high school student as a KY FAME apprentice. Through this partnership, employers have the opportunity to invest in the future of not only their own companies, but also the manufacturing industry as a whole. In sponsoring a high school graduate, a company agrees to provide specific on-the-job, hands-on training within a created part-time position (24 hours per week), while a local community college reinforces skills with classroom experience chosen by employers. The participating company commits to providing a competitive manufacturing wage for part-time work while the student is enrolled in the program, and the company pays the student’s tuition at the community college.

Graduating high school students in Northern Kentucky can apply to the KY FAME program, provided they achieve a certain ACT score and their high school transcripts meet the KY FAME threshold. Additionally, students must submit a 500-word essay explaining why they should be chosen, detailing any experience they’ve had in manufacturing or expressing a mechanical/electromechanical interest.

Once accepted into KY FAME, students begin working toward their Advanced Manufacturing Technician (AMT) certification. For five semesters, they attend classes at a local community college two days a week and work three days a week with a local employer. This results in an associate degree in Applied Science in Industrial Maintenance Technology-Advanced Manufacturing Track, 68 to 71 college credit hours and two years of work experience, in addition to the AMT certification. Students leave the program ready to enter the workforce full time.



Student sponsorship

In 2018, DESMA sent representatives to the community college to interview all candidates over the course of several days prior to the official draft day. Early said there were approximately 30 candidates available for company sponsorship after the initial screening. When draft day arrived, each company had several candidates identified based on the interview, fi t with the company culture and internal discussion.

One student, Stephen Morrison, told a story during the interview process that made him stand out from the crowd. “He said he was working part time at a fast food restaurant when the ice cream machine broke,” Early explained. “He then told us how he jumped in and tried to troubleshoot the machine to get it working again.” This anecdote helped seal the deal, and DESMA selected him for its first sponsorship.

Morrison was relieved when he received word that he had been accepted into the program because he didn’t know what his career path would look like otherwise. He began work at DESMA in July 2018, and since then he has worked in several areas of the facility.

“I’ve worked in our rebuild department and our project department, and I’ve been able to work hands-on with coworkers on projects such as mold testing and tearing down machines that are a decade or two old to rebuild them for resale,” he explained. “I also traveled to customer plants as a jr. service technician, representing DESMA and working alongside experienced technicians.”

A year into the program, Morrison has strong interest in both the project and rebuild departments, but he is keeping his options open, saying it’s too soon to say where he will want to be after the completion of the program. “There are a lot of options for me, and I want to take my time figuring out what I want to do here at DESMA,” he said.

The work is rewarding for Morrison, but he said simply getting started may have been the most challenging part. “I was completely new to this entire industry when I first applied to the KY FAME program,” he said.

“DESMA helped a lot by teaching me and helping me gain experience in this field.” Having graduated high school not even two months before beginning work at DESMA, Morrison said he was surprised by the amount of responsibility that DESMA gave him. “For me, the shift from being a kid to a working citizen was the biggest challenge.”

To make sure Morrison has adequate tasks at DESMA, the company’s management team stays engaged with him. Early said that “this is sometimes a challenge due to the time commitments required,” but in the long run he believes the company is building a win-win for Morrison, DESMA and future KY FAME apprentices. With each semester, the company receives a report card and a review on Morrison from his school. Together, management and Morrison discuss the semester and classes he took. Furthermore, he also reports to the DESMA customer care coordinator and the DESMA service coordinator daily. “And, if I need any further help, Scott is always available,” Morrison added.

Looking ahead

Just over a year into the program, Morrison has completed about half of the work for the KY FAME program. Once it is finished, he will have some options concerning his immediate future. The 68 to 71 college credit hours may or may not transfer to a four-year university – Morrison said it depends on the classes and the schools. “Some universities won’t recognize certain classes, but some will, and they can be rolled over if that’s the case.” In the Boone County area, the University of Cincinnati and the University of Kentucky both accept some of the classes Morrison is taking as credit toward a four-year degree. Additionally, as stated in his contract with DESMA, Morrison will work for the company for a set number of years after he completes the program. Once the time period is up, he can explore other options or choose to remain at DESMA.

Early said the company has learned a lot in its first year of sponsoring a student. “There is a sizable time commitment as a sponsor of a KY FAME student, and we must blend this with our daily work,” he stated. “We trust that we are building a relationship with Stephen so that he can one day be a productive member of our company in a career that is beneficial to both of us.”

In 2020, DESMA plans to enter the draft for another KY FAME graduate in an effort to bring on additional young people and expose them to the industry of rubber injection molding. Early said he also has his sights set on local four-year universities to sponsor an engineering student.

Considering the number of benefits for not only the company and the industry but also for students, Morrison said he would recommend this program to his peers. “With the free education and the work experience, it is a good set-up that can lead to a path of success,” he said. More importantly, he is happy to have been given this opportunity. “I didn’t want a desk job because that would be boring; I wanted a job that would give me opportunities to advance and learn.”