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Interns play growing role in factories

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Arthur Griffin paired a part-time job at Premier Custom-Built Inc. with studies at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster. Griffin will graduate in May, with a degree in cabinetmaking and wood technology, and step into a full-time position with Premier, a high-end cabinet maker based in Lancaster County.
Arthur Griffin paired a part-time job at Premier Custom-Built Inc. with studies at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster. Griffin will graduate in May, with a degree in cabinetmaking and wood technology, and step into a full-time position with Premier, a high-end cabinet maker based in Lancaster County. - (Photo / )

Facing industry-wide shortages of skilled workers, midstate manufacturers are increasingly approaching schools and technical colleges to recruit interns for production-line positions.

“What we’re noticing is a big change and shift,” said Laurie Grove, director of career services at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology.

The Lancaster technical college has partnered with The Ames Companies Inc., Tyson Foods Inc., Premier Custom-Built Inc. and a variety of other manufacturing firms to better connect its students with open internship positions, a phenomenon more commonly associated with white-collar professions like law and accounting.

According to Grove, many of the interns from Stevens go from their stints at firms like Ames to full-time jobs. “I sometimes tell students it’s a great three-month interview,” said Grove. But companies likewise have to sell themselves to the student. “It allows the company to showcase their company to the student.”

Sixty percent of interns end up with full-time positions from the companies with which they interned, Grove said.

According to Chris Ebling, vice president of human resources at Ames, a Camp Hill-based garden tools manufacturer, expanded internship programs are a necessity to meeting the challenge of skilled labor.

“I think it’s our lifeblood to really try and recruit younger folks coming out of school just trying to build careers here,” said Ebling.

In addition to working with Stevens, Ames has partnered with Penn State Harrisburg, Harrisburg Area Community College, Cumberland Valley High School and East Pennsboro High School, as well as with myriad job fairs and recruiters.

“We thought it’s time to really reach out to education and the local community to make sure they know we’re here, what we have to offer and hopefully grab some of the young talent coming out of school these days,” said Ebling.

Many high schools, such as East Pennsboro High School and Cumberland Valley High School, are providing students greater opportunities to study and practice skilled trades such as carpentry and drafting.

“A lot of the high schools around here are really advanced in their technical trade,” said Wendy Nolan, human resources manager at cabinet-maker Premier Custom-Built Inc. in New Holland. Nolan said Premier was surprised by the level of technical instruction available at Cumberland Valley High School in particular.

“We went there and did a tour and we were impressed just talking about how students could come straight from high school,” said Noland. “In some ways, they had some of the cabinet-making classes in Cumberland Valley and we could just take it from there.”

While much attention is paid to the skills gap in manufacturing, Nolan stressed that internships can help find employees with the right personality fit as well.

“We have a culture that is, I almost want to say, a ‘humble’ culture,” said Nolan. “We’re looking for a personality fit and people who can work without limitations.” A good fit for Premier will have a mindset of “perfection, particularly in the business of custom cabinetry. Everything is detail oriented.”

One of the major hindrances faced by Premier and Ames — and manufacturing on a broader scale — is parents’ perception of what a career in manufacturing looks like. According to a 2015 study conducted by Deloitte for the National Association of Manufacturers, only five in 10 Americans believed a career in manufacturing would be clean and safe, and only three in 10 would recommend their children pursue a career in manufacturing.

Challenging that reputation has encouraged some manufacturers to make internal changes to their workspaces.

“We try to do a lot of things from an environment standpoint. We’ve done a lot of things from a lighting standpoint, a cleanliness standpoint,” said Chris Ebling from Ames. “Kids coming out of school don’t want to stand in front of equipment for eight hours a day and pound things out. We’re really looking at a lot of robotics things — not replacing people, but (robots) working in tandem with people.”

These aren’t just issues faced by manufacturers. Trades in general are scoffed at by many parents who would prefer their children pursue a four-year degree instead of train in skilled labor.

Manufacturers and educators are hoping to convince them otherwise. “I think sometimes parents may not be educated as to the career paths,” says Todd Schultz, a human resources manager at Tyson Foods Inc.’s prepared-meals production center in New Holland.

“Sometimes, unfortunately, parents think going to college and sitting at a desk is better, when they could go to a four-year college and end up with a degree that’s worthless to them,” Schultz said.

Tyson Foods hopes to offer manufacturing as a career that can be both stable and productive, he added. “On the technology side, if you do a good job, you’re going to have a good job.”

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Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter covers health care news for the Central Penn Business Journal. Email her at gbranstetter@cpbj.com.

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