by Linda L. Esterson, photography by Bill Ryan
Elsner Engineering Works in Hanover is bracing for workforce attrition, as much as 30 percent in the next 10 years.
“This is happening regionally as well, and it’s almost entirely due to retirement,” says Gordon Laabs, business development manager of Elsner, which produces machines that wind, pack and fold products. “The majority of the workforce has 25 years of experience in this field.”
But company leaders aren’t just waiting for the inevitable employee shortage to hit them. Instead, they’ve partnered with the Hanover Chamber of Commerce to create the first pre-apprenticeship program to gain approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. The program currently includes three companies in addition to Elsner: KLK Welding, R.H. Sheppard Co. and Utz Quality Foods, and others have expressed interest in joining.
The program aims to help high school students gain entry into industry by providing them with skills such as welding, machining (metalworking) and machatronics (maintenance of industry machinery). The students are credentialed by the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) through a training process that includes individual modules, beginning with topics such as materials measurement and safety basics. Other modules teach benchwork and layout, and drill press and milling machine operation. Of the nine total modules, students should be able to pass testing for four this school year, and underclassman can advance further next year.
“We want for kids, in addition to earning their high school diploma, to earn a certificate that can get them entry into the workforce or have a buildable skill set to continue their education,” Laabs says.
The program, in its first year, is run in partnership with Hanover and South Western high schools. Hanover High has a fully functional welding lab, as well as a machine shop and foundry; and South Western has the KLK School of Welding.
“We want to provide the best education for our students,” says Marc Abels, principal of Hanover High. “We have the great opportunity to partner with local businesses we are already working with and strengthen the partnership to provide NIMS credentials to better serve our students.” Hanover High already offers other Pennsylvania Department of Education-approved programs in welding and diversified occupations, and in other disciplines such as music technology and mechatronics (robotics).
Six Hanover High students are participating in the pre-apprenticeship program this year; Abels expects enrollment next
year to at least double. The program is positioned as a pre-apprenticeship program for the first two years of student participation, with the majority of the program involving classroom work at the school and lab work at the partner companies. Students participating beyond two years could become full company apprentices. More than 20 students are enrolled in other welding
and diversified occupations programs at Hanover.
“Everything we do in Hanover Public Schools is in the best interest of serving students,” Abel said. “We realize the need of manufacturers and want to make sure kids graduate not only with a high school diploma but, if they choose, with credentials to make them more marketable in a global economy.”
The goal is to help students secure job placements with local manufacturers, including the program partners. And those who desire to head to college or further their education have tools to secure part-time employment.
“The apprenticeship program has been a true collaboration between business and education partners in the Hanover community. Together, we have built a program that will benefit both students and employers in the area, offering high-level training and preparation to students in the fields of welding, machining and mechatronics,” says Hanover Area Chamber of Commerce President Gary Laird in a statement. “Lack of qualified, skilled talent is a real problem throughout the U.S., and we are taking the steps to tackle that problem here in Hanover. This would not be possible without commitment from both industry and education, and we are fortunate to have those strong relationships in Hanover.”
Hanover High senior Dawson Hommerbocker started taking metal shop his freshman year and has joined the welding program to spend more time in the metal shop. With the pre-apprenticeship program, he spends six of eight scheduled periods — including study hall — in the metal or welding shops, amounting to about 4½ hours each day. Some days, he spends part of the school day at Riley Welding, training to become a fabricator, which combines both machining and welding.
“If I could have metal shop all day, I would do it,” he says.
Hommerbocker realizes the more knowledge he can gain, the higher the salary he will ultimately receive once employed in the field. He also notes the value of receiving the training as part of his high school education, and not facing the expense of college or a trade school.
Once Hommerbocker turns 18 in the spring, his time at Riley will transition into a paid internship, and he will earn professional credentials, according to Mark Williams, shop teacher and coordinator of the program at Hanover High. This year’s juniors also will spend time at participating companies as seniors.
Senior Colton Angel is considering military service after graduation. He expects to use the knowledge he is gaining in the metal shop in his military career.
Junior Michael Minetos finds the program worthwhile and considers machining a “good fallback plan” if his goal to pursue a career in military aviation doesn’t work out.
Minetos expects to intern for one of the participating companies during his senior year.
“More experience will help, especially in a work environment,” he says. “It will be eye-opening and help with the actual curriculum of the course.”
“The key is knowledge transfer,” Laabs notes. “We take the experience they’ve learned and ensure that knowledge transfer to the next generation.”
While shop teacher Williams is aware that some might hold the misconception that working in this industry is just a job, and not a real career, he points out that the opposite is true. These local manufacturers provide long-term employment for educated and well-trained workers. And now, he points out, while many students enroll in college and finish their studies or can find jobs in their fields, the pre-apprenticeship program provides skills that make students employable right out of high school.