KAMTEK creates workforce pipeline through booming apprenticeship program

Freddy Valladeres   All photos by Bob Farley, f8Photo

Freddy Valladeres

All photos by Bob Farley, f8Photo

For Traci Wells, human resources manager at KAMTEK, one of the greatest challenges she faces in her job is recruiting journeyman skilled trades, specifically the tool and die journeyman that KAMTEK, a division of Magna International, requires.

“Recruiters will say we can’t do it,” she said. “They literally tell us, ‘You can’t do it.’”

So the team at KAMTEK, a Tier 1 automotive manufacturing supplier that specializes in metal stamping and assembly and is especially known for its work with Mercedes-Benz, decided to show recruiters they could do it – by building an apprenticeship program to help grow its own workforce, which currently employs 1,000 in Birmingham.

High school graduates are increasingly going to college rather than manufacturing environments like KAMTEK, said Wells, which makes it challenging to recruit for the skilled trades. There is an over 20-year gap between older employees at KAMTEK, many of whom are getting close to retirement, and the 52 students currently in its apprenticeship program, which was created locally in 2012.

“We needed to do something for our future,” said Joe Hendrix, training area leader at KAMTEK and the coordinator of the apprenticeship program. “We decided we wouldn’t fail because of that gap. When we recruit apprentices, we are looking not just for our future skilled workforce, but for our next generation of leaders.”

As that gap widens and the quest for skilled talent becomes more competitive, apprenticeships are becoming more popular. The City of Birmingham and the Birmingham Business Alliance have both turned to a report from Building (it) Together which recommends employers use co-op and alternate training opportunities, including apprenticeships, as a path to provide training to young workers as experienced workers retire.

Apprenticeships are something KAMTEK’s leaders know well. John Hackett, the general manager at KAMTEK, as well as three of the four assistant general managers at the 1.2 million-square-foot plant, all started as apprentices. Their experience with apprenticeships influenced how they wanted KAMTEK’s apprenticeship program to work.

There are 15 graduates from KAMTEK’s local program and all are still at the company. Each apprentice is a major investment by the company, which pays for apprentices to work onsite at KAMTEK while paying for them to get an associate’s degree from Wallace State Community College. The company has two different apprenticeship programs – one for tool and die, which teaches apprentices how to work on dies and fixtures, and one for maintenance, which works with equipment used in production, including hundreds of robots.

Entry level pay for an apprentice is 65 percent of an entry-level journeyman’s wage, with a 5 percent pay increase every six months over four years, eventually reaching an entry-level journeyman’s wage.

Freddy Valladeres started at KAMTEK two weeks after his high school graduation. His dad works at the company as a quality auditor and told his son about the apprenticeship program.

“If you don’t go to college, it’s not a dead end,” Valladeres said. “It’s a great opportunity. There are a lot of paths to leadership.”

Sterling Alfano

Sterling Alfano

His friend and fellow first-year tool and die apprentice Sterling Alfano, whose stepfather works at KAMTEK as a tool and die mechanical engineer, tried college for two years. It wasn’t for him. He was a nursing student, then a paramedic, then an EMT.

“You have to ask if your heart is in it,” Alfano said regarding his decision to leave college for skilled trade work. “I feel good about what I did. It’s the best satisfaction.”

Apprentice graduates can essentially choose where they want to go within the company, said Robbie Buzbee, a fourth-year tool and die apprentice. With 8,000 hours of experience in a highly demanded skill, they can earn more than graduates of four-year colleges and be free from student loan debt.

Next January, Buzbee will graduate from the program. He was already working at KAMTEK as a forklift driver when he read about the apprenticeship program in KAMTEK’s daily company briefing. He saw the apprenticeship program as an opportunity to learn a trade he could use for the rest of his life and for KAMTEK to pay for him to finish his degree.

“It has been a life-changing experience,” Buzbee said. “Skilled trades have a poor man reputation, but it’s the exact opposite. You can make a very good, honest living and always have a job. People are always looking for people with these skills.”

Apprentices are valued at KAMTEK – there is a special area on the production floor for the apprentices, demarcated with a banner proclaiming “The Future Begins Here.”

KAMTEK’s Wells said when looking for apprentices, she looks for an open-minded attitude, along with hand skills and manual dexterity. Hendrix said he looks for students with the ability to think and solve problems and the ability to work with their hands.

“If they come to us with those skills, we can teach and train them on all the technical skills they need to know,” he said.

New job openings – including apprenticeships – and all jobs are posted internally first, Hendrix said, so the best way to get connected as an apprentice is to first work for KAMTEK as a production associate. Available apprenticeships can be found at the Careers page of KAMTEK’s parent company Magna.