Spokane Journal of Business

Workforce development becomes inside job

INW manufacturers pivot to in-house instruction

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-Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories
Employees at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories participate in a soldering class at one of the company’s Inland Northwest facilities.

Workforce retirements and growing demand for services are pressuring some manufacturers here to find alternatives to hiring skilled workers by creating internal workforce-development programs, company leaders say.

Business operations for many manufacturing companies sputtered to a halt in 2020 due to pandemic-related safety measures, resulting in some layoffs. Later, after demand for services picked up again, companies had to scramble to rehire, some company leaders here explain.

Mike Marzetta, president of Liberty Lake-based contract advanced manufacturer Altek Inc., says ramping up production after COVID restrictions were lifted was constrained in part by a lack of skilled labor.

Altek currently is working on a structured training program, although it still relies heavily on recruitment to meet its labor needs, Marzetta says.

Other manufacturing companies established partnerships with community colleges and technical schools to train workers in manufacturing specialties, but some company leaders say the process takes too long to make an immediate impact.

Greg Konkol, president at AccraFab Inc., says the Liberty Lake-based manufacturing company is passionate about internal training opportunities for all its positions.

Konkol says he began working last year to create the University of AccraFab as a way to take control of the company’s labor needs.

“We tried for about three years to work with some of the local organizations and colleges, trying to develop skilled craftsman type programs … but the system had a lot of problems,” he says. “We finally came to the conclusion that if we’re going to do this, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.”

Konkol says the company transitioned from a two-person department of trainers and human resources personnel to a department of six.

He says the University of AccraFab, which is still under development, has three main areas of focus including technical skills and competencies, continuous education, and leadership development.

He maintains that AccraFab’s in-house training program isn’t just for its manufacturing workforce, but for all employees of the company.

“We try to match the needs of the business with the specific skills and talents that the individuals have… so they’ve got a good career path that they’re interested in, that they’re going to enjoy, and try to set them up for success,” says Konkol.

About 140 students are enrolled in the skills-training section of the program. There are three levels of expertise, and with each advancement, employees can expect a promotion with a new title and additional compensation. Once completed, participants will have a journeyman level of expertise, he says.

“We have such a variety of positions and skills that we need,” explains Konkol. “People who aren't as familiar with what we do might come in and say, ‘Well, I don't want to be a fabricator,’ or ‘I don't want to work in manufacturing.’ Well, we have accounting positions. We've got research and development, We've got engineering. We’ve got HR and sales. We need all these different personality types and skills to successfully run this business.”

Over 1,200 manufacturing businesses here serve a range of industries with a broad customer base and fabricate aerospace products, aluminum casting, medical equipment and supplies, paper and plastic products, and structural or other metal products, according to Advantage Spokane, a publication of Greater Spokane Incorporated.

The industry represents 7.2% of the local economy and 8.3% of total gross regional product, so finding employees in the manufacturing sector is a top priority for many companies.

Year-over-year industry growth in the county has been led partly by advanced manufacturing, such as aerospace manufacturing, according to information from the Spokane Workforce Council. The manufacturing industry is a top 10 employer in Spokane County with a total of 16,300 manufacturing jobs in 2022 and average annual wages of $63,100.

Stacy Doty, chief people officer at Pullman, Washington-based electronic manufacturing company Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories Inc., says SEL invests millions of dollars for internal workforce training that begins immediately for new hires.

“We start not only with the basics of on-the-job training, but we also get into STEM-based topics. It’s a way for us to determine what they’re interested in and how they might want to grow their career,” Doty says.

SEL offers an onboarding pathway, engineering development program, apprenticeship program, leadership training, tuition assistance, and mentoring opportunities.

The company has about 6,000 total employees, including 3,600 who work at facilities in Pullman, the Idaho cities of Moscow and Lewiston, and in Spokane.

Doty says SEL has dedicated training space at its facilities and creates time for staff to participate in learning opportunities.

The company also offers digital learning opportunities including virtual classes, which are legacies from pandemic-era training that accommodate flexible training needs.

“In the last few years, our ability to reach people and train people in different ways has grown exponentially,” Doty says. “At any given time, we have hundreds and hundreds of people actively participating in some sort of training.”

She says many of SEL’s training courses are attended by technicians, although training opportunities are available for anyone.

“No matter where you are in the organization, there is training available to you for the work you’re doing,” Doty says. “We’re an employee-owned company … and when we hire an employee, we want to commit to them.”

Outside of the advanced-manufacturing arena, Dusti Swinney, vice president of human resources and safety at Meridian, Idaho-based heavy equipment dealership Western States Equipment Co., says the company needs more diesel technicians to meet growing demand for servicing and repairing equipment and parts. 

Swinney says that Western States, which operates a dealership in Liberty Lake, initially partnered with a community college in Idaho to teach skills needed for diesel technicians, however the company has found that hiring is much easier now, after creating an in-house training program in 2021.

“It’s easier for us to recruit the students to come directly to our program with a direct path to employment, rather than recruit them to go to a college first and then come to Western States,” Swinney says.

She adds that the training program was so successful that it doubled its capacity in its second year.

In its first year, the program had one instructor for 12 students. In 2022, the company added another instructor for a total capacity of 24 students.

“Certainly, an instructor could handle more, but we do a lot of hands-on lab work that’s working directly on the machines, so … 12 students is about the max capacity to ensure that we’re getting them the hands-on instruction and that we’re keeping them safe,” says Swinney.

She says participants don’t have to apply for a job with Western States after completing the program.

“The classroom and hands-on training are followed by a two-month paid internship, and as long as they can successfully complete the entire nine-month program, they will be offered a position at the end of their internship,” says Swinney.

She says the program is steadily gaining traction through marketing and active recruitment.

“Next year, we hope to be at full capacity,” says Swinney.

By comparison, only about seven people were enrolled in the training program offered at the community college before Western States transitioned to in-house training, she says.

“Fortunately, I think interest in the trades is becoming more appealing to people because they can get into the workforce quickly with the certification and start making good money.”

Swinney says the training also familiarizes trainees with the company’s culture.

“They come out of our program far more ready to join our company as an employee than if they came out of the college,” Swinney says.

She adds that Western State’s training program is accredited by the Associated Equipment Distributors and is the same certification offered at other colleges in the Pacific Northwest.

Western State’s program costs $5,000 and covers all of the associated costs including personal protective equipment, computer and software use, and tools.

She adds that for some, tuition may be difficult to afford, so the company also offers a couple of scholarships each year.

Swinney says Western States’ costs to provide internal training is worth the outcome.

“When they graduate—if our program is full—that’s 24 new technicians that will be available in one month,” she says. “If we were to try to recruit 24 technicians in one month, that would be incredibly difficult.”

Swinney says it’s possible that Western States will offer different training programs in the future, but for now the priority is to boost technician employment.

“The students coming to our program are so much farther ahead in being productive and efficient and in their careers, it really launches them into their career,” she says.

Erica Bullock
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Reporter Erica Bullock has worked at the Journal since 2019 and covers real estate and construction. She is a craft beer enthusiast, who loves to garden and go camping with friends.

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