July 31, 2014
When metal fabricator Shickel Corp. sought to boost the overall skill level of its employee base in the face of a more competitive business environment, it went back to school. More specifically, it sought the local community college to help craft a curriculum and implement a class structure to deliver the improved math and shop skills it desired.
Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from a presentation made at the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association’s Technology Educators and Manufacturers Summit, May 20, Ogden, Utah.
Anniversaries are good reminders for looking back, but they also are a reminder to look ahead.
In 2014 Shickel Corp., Bridgewater, Va., celebrated its 75th anniversary. It began as Shickel Machine Shop in 1938 and was purchased by Carlton and Helen Shickel in 1952. Today the company, which became Shickel Corp. in 1995, is involved in the production of a variety of metal fabrications, from presentation displays for museums to stainless steel processing lines for food manufacturers to decorative staircases for commercial buildings.
After looking back at 75 years in business, the company became more determined to not just survive, but to thrive for another 75 years. The best way to accomplish this was to invest in its employees.
Of course, the metal fabricating business is not the same as it was even five years ago, much less several decades ago. The competition is incredibly fierce and the margins are smaller than they have ever been. Companies like Shickel simply can’t afford to create simple in-house fabrication drawings; they must rely on supplied prints from the customer or other parties. As a result, fabricators on the shop floor and in the field have to be able to interpret many types of prints and spot the missing details from the supplied information; time lost to chasing down and consulting with engineers to help to fill in missing details can’t be recovered.
Success was once defined by just having highly skilled craftsmen. Nowadays those craftsmen have to be able to work independently and efficiently to help keep projects on budget and delivered on time.
To help broaden the skill sets of Shickel employees, the company reached out to Blue Ridge Community College (BRCC), Weyers Cave, Va.
BRCC serves about 4,500 credit students and 10,000 noncredit individuals each year. The school offers both traditional academic and technology-based classes. Shickel has worked with the college’s Technology Intensive Manufacturing Service Center in the past, so it was comfortable in reaching out to the school’s corporate training coordinator to begin the talks to set up an intensive training effort for the fabricator’s employees.
After initial meetings, Shickel management decided to focus training in six areas: basic math, ratios, geometry, trigonometry, print reading, and welding symbols. A pre-assessment was given to all workers in early January, and those results influenced the creation of the training modules for each topic. A score of 85 percent or better on the pre-assessment test exempted the employee from the additional training because he or she was deemed competent in that subject area.
The pre-assessment tests were given to 72 employees from all levels of the company. Calculators were permitted.
Scores on those pre-assessment tests showed that a majority of Shickel employees had a good understanding of basic math but needed to brush up on the advanced math concepts. The results also revealed a need to boost knowledge of welding symbols among employees.
The pre-assessment data was then used to determine who needed to take what classes. Schedules were created for employees. Classes were scheduled to last an hour to 90 minutes and held on Mondays and Fridays.
The instructional materials were developed from technical trades’ classroom materials, but altered slightly to fit the specific needs of Shickel. An instructor affiliated with BRCC guided each class, providing one-on-one instruction where needed. The instructor used the Air Sketch application on an iPad® for visual demonstrations of the topics during class. Learning aids were created and distributed to all class attendees.
What was taught? Math concepts covered not only the basics, but also order of operations, rounding, fractions, and decimals. The ratio/proportion/percent portion of the math tutorials taught the employees how to determine pulley, teeth, and compression ratios; rise/run (slope); percentages of the whole; and decimal conversions. The geometry curriculum, designed to help with print reading, covered parallel lines, transverse lines, angles, the Pythagorean theorem, and triangles. Trigonometry, obviously, presented a challenge to many, but a majority pushed through to achieve proficiency in this area.
In addition to math concepts, the curriculum stressed welding symbols and print reading concepts. The American Welding Society Welding Symbols chart was the source for all symbol instruction and discussion. Meanwhile, print reading concepts focused on 2-D representations of 3-D objects, six principal views, reading dimensions, and finding sizes for undimensioned features.
When the employee finished the session, he or she was given a postsession evaluation. A score of 85 percent indicated proficiency in the subject matter. Those that didn’t meet that competency level after the initial training were then offered remedial classes and later reassessed.
Training and follow-up assessments concluded at the end of March. Results indicated that the courses resulted in huge improvements in basic math scores, in which more than 90 percent that participated achieved the desired level of competency. Even in more traditional production-oriented coursework—welding symbols and print reading—employees demonstrated great improvement from the original assessment to the follow-up testing, with approximately 75 percent achieving high levels of success.
When looking back at the cost of the overall training—which included the cost for developing the assessments, wage cost set aside for participants to take the assessments and participate in training, and the instructor cost—Shickel spent almost $21,000. That was partially offset by a BRCC grant, which helped to drive the cost down to just over $17,000.
In the end, Shickel determined that benefits of the training far outweighed any cost. The fabricator saw camaraderie building among the learning groups, and the training helped to break down barriers between peers and management, allowing a person to admit he might not know something and seek out a co-worker for help. It also energized the company as a whole as everyone re-engaged with a formal learning process, something that can be very intimidating for a person who has not stepped into a classroom for several years.
The company believes that it could not have made any type of capital investment that would have had the same impact on its future profitability and morale. The training reinforced the company’s core culture of being able to respond to metal fabricating challenges in a quick and quality manner.
The challenge now is to maintain the employees’ high level of knowledge while also bringing new hires into the company.
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