By Mike Schmidt, AEM Industry Advisor Editor
Like many of its counterparts within the manufacturing industry, Savannah, Georgia-based JCB, Inc. has made attracting, developing and retaining a skilled labor force an organizational priority.
However, its concerted effort to ingrain workforce development into company culture through the establishment of a successful apprenticeship program has allowed one of the world’s leading manufacturers of construction equipment to transform the tall task of skilled worker recruitment into an organizational strength.
“Every year something we do changes, grows or expands, because we see the future and what we need to do, and we know how successful we’ve been in the past,” said JCB Vice President of Human Resources Tonya Poole, who outlined her company’s approach to workforce development and detailed the rise of its apprenticeship program at an AEM Thinking Forward event held at Duluth, Georgia-based AGCO Corporation earlier this year.
Addressing the Skills Gap
Nearly 18 years ago, JCB established both its headquarters and a full-fledged manufacturing facility in Savannah. As Georgia’s third-largest city, it seemed more than capable of supporting a large and successful company like JCB. But the company soon discovered Savannah’s struggling education system – one with drop-out rates that were much higher than those in cities located in other parts of Georgia –prevented JCB from being able to acquire the level of local talent it needed to adequately support its manufacturing and service activities.
To help combat the problem, Poole was tasked with creating and developing an apprenticeship program when she arrived at JCB in 2012.
“The idea was very broad, initially,” explained Poole. “It was ‘How do we build a labor force for manufacturing moving forward?’”
Comprised of 22 manufacturing plants, 16 parts depots and 10,000-plus employees across the globe, JCB is a dynamic, multinational company with ever-changing business needs. Poole went about establishing an apprenticeship program to best meet those needs by embracing a European-style approach to workforce development.
“If you look at Europe, its view of apprenticeship is ingrained in the culture and it’s part of the business,” said Poole.
“We took the playbook from the UK and implemented it here with a few changes,” she added.
Developing an Apprenticeship Program
JCB started by collaborating with a number of organizational entities already working to support workforce development initiatives – Savannah Technical College, Go Build Georgia and Georgia Quick Start – and the company began its initial recruitment efforts in 2012.
The first year the program was implemented, JCB welcomed five apprentices and fully funded their participation. The company paid for the apprentices’ tuition to Savannah Tech, their schoolbooks, uniforms and other materials they needed for school and work. The apprentices then commenced with the five-year program.
The JCB apprenticeship program initially calls for participants to spend part of their days in school and the rest of their time at work at JCB. The school-work hybrid period of the program lasts two to three years in total, at which time apprentices tailor much of the remaining time to their individual interests and career goals.
“We pay them to go to school, and we pay them to come to work,” added Poole. “So there’s compensation, and they are treated like full-time employees. They have holiday pay. They have time off.”
Expanding Workforce Development Activities
In the five years since JCB launched its apprenticeship program, the company’s efforts to address workforce development have continually grown and evolved with time. Initially, apprentices worked exclusively on the manufacturing floor, but now JCB has expanded the program to provide experience in administrative office functions like procurement and order fulfillment, as well as in computer science. In addition, the company partners with Georgia Southern University and Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) to offer opportunities related to engineering, and the company recently reopened its two-year welding and fabrication program.
JCB’s apprenticeship program also strives to motivate its participants to think long-term about their career plans. Apprentices are tasked with developing a pathway toward achieving their goals, and they work diligently to foster personal and professional growth within themselves.
By their third year of involvement in the program, company apprentices are required to select an area of interest. While the program is designed to help apprentices become subject experts in a particular area, such as engineering, for example, it also provides them with exposure to all of the different facets of JCB’s business operations.
“With us, they will know every area of the business,” said Poole. “They will have touched it, felt it, experienced it, and that gives them a much better understanding of (every area).”
Currently, JCB seeks to bring in five to 10 qualified candidates for the program per year and, according to Poole, it’s an appropriate number of apprentices to meet the company’s needs right now. JCB pays for apprentices’ wages, while also investing resources to aid in the ongoing expansion and development of the program.
“We feel like that’s manageable for our size,” said Poole. “We don’t want it to be just about today. We want to be able to see a future for them.”
In 2017, JCB’s program received certification from the Georgia Department of Labor, and the state now sponsors the company’s cost for apprentices’ school tuition, tools, uniforms and more.
“JCB’s is now more an investment in time, and there’s a massive investment in time with programs like ours,” said Poole. “You are getting to know these kids, their parents, and you want to engage with them on that level in order to retain them.”
One of the company’s greatest challenges in creating, implementing and developing an apprenticeship program is getting the most out of recruitment efforts. Many schools today are focused on steering students toward continuing their studies in a traditional university environment, thus making it difficult for companies such as JCB to reach young people and inform them about alternative career development paths.
To help bolster recruitment activities, JCB established a program to bring middle school-age young people to the company campus once every few months to interact with current employees and apprentices. The youngsters engage in hands-on engineering exercises, spend time on the plant floor and participate in other activities with JCB personnel. JCB also holds a job fair once a year to help spur interest in the company and what it can offer in terms of workforce development.
The equipment manufacturing industry continues to evolve with time, and the needs of a company like JCB will change with it. Therefore, having a program in place to engage, mold and employ the workforce of tomorrow is of critical importance in today’s competitive business environment. While JCB’s workforce development activities are always a work in progress, the company’s message to prospective employees remains consistent and clear.
“Our objective was to develop a program and put it in place to ensure we had the workforce we needed going forward,” said Poole. “Our students understand that we offer high-tech, well-paying jobs in a clean and safe environment, and that there are tremendous opportunities available to grow with us.”
Tonya Poole was one of several speakers at AEM's Thinking Forward conference at AGCO Corporation in Duluth, Georgia. To see the schedule of Thinking Forward events for 2018, visit www.aem.org/think.
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