Illinois manufacturer finds solution to workforce challenge in Apprenticeship Works

May 25, 2018

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Martin Engineering faced a problem, one that could hinder production. The company’s most experienced tool and die maker was planning to retire within five years. How could his extensive knowledge and his critical skills be passed on to other employees?

“We knew we had to do something to get a tool-and-die apprenticeship going,” said Kathy Erdmann, People Development & Training Manager for the Illinois manufacturer.

Established in 1944, Martin Engineering is the leading manufacturer of bulk materials handling equipment for dozens of industries, including mining, agriculture, and others. The company employs 1,000 worldwide, with 250 at its headquarters in Neponset, Illinois.

Tool and die making is critical to production at Martin Engineering, and it’s difficult to find people with the right kinds of skills and knowledge to fill those positions, Erdmann said. With their experienced tool and die maker, Chuck Thumma, retiring in the near future, she searched for a training solution.

The resolution presented itself through Apprenticeship Works, the National Advanced Manufacturing Apprenticeship Partnership at the Robert C. Byrd Institute (RCBI). Online training provider ToolingU-SME referred her to the Apprenticeship Works model at RCBI.

Registered apprenticeship programs require on-the-job training and related instruction. Martin Engineering is in a rural part of Illinois, an hour away from the nearest community college. For that reason, the company wanted their apprentices to do their related instruction online and at the plant.

Supported by an American Apprenticeship Initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, Apprenticeship Works helps manufacturers across the country implement and manage apprenticeship programs. Tool & die making is one of 17 advanced manufacturing occupations addressed by the initiative.

“Apprenticeship Works is helping manufacturers across the United States tackle their most critical training needs,” said Charlotte Weber, director & CEO of RCBI.

The Apprenticeship Works staff worked with Martin Engineering to customize a tool and die apprenticeship program specific to its work processes and provided training onsite to mentors who supervise apprentices.

Two employees were registered as apprentices, one who was new to the department and another with some experience. Both employees, Steve Brody and Jacob McNamee, took their related training online and RCBI provided on-site train the trainer instruction for the company mentors. The apprentices also did extensive on-the-job training with the journey worker/mentor in the department. Both apprentices were given credit for their knowledge and skills through assessment.

Brody, the apprentice with more years of experience, has completed the program, while McNamee has about a year to go.

Erdmann said both apprentices and the mentor, Chuck Thumma, found the program beneficial.

“We were surprised how excited the individuals were, how worthwhile they thought it was,” she said. “The existing journeyman really felt proud to be able to share his knowledge and mentor in a professional capacity.”

For Martin Engineering, the true return on investment has come in the preservation of the journeyman’s knowledge and skills. A registered apprenticeship program made that possible.

“Transferring knowledge is very difficult,” she said. “This provided us a means to do that. It promoted knowledge sharing in a very positive way.”

Now the company is considering starting apprenticeships in other occupations in partnership with Apprenticeship Works. Erdmann suggests other manufacturers do the same – find a partner to help with the establishment of an apprenticeship program.

“I suggest companies get help from RCBI or some other organization,” she said. “To work with the Department of Labor and organize the training yourself is quite an endeavor if you don’t have a large training department.”

RCBI delivers innovative solutions with leading-edge technology in advance manufacturing and entrepreneurship. For more information on the Apprenticeship Works initiative, go to