Spartan Aerospace in Manchester is filled with experienced manufacturing workers.

But special project coordinator Zeke Lehrer knows they won't be there forever. And when they do retire, these skilled workers will walk out the door with a wealth of knowledge and experience that will be difficult to replace.

Apprentice Chris Lambert with Spartan toolmaker John Adams
Apprentice: Cheney Technical High School student Chris Lambert working with Spartan toolmaker John Adams.

That's why whenever you walk the floor at Spartan Aerospace, you're likely to see people like vice president of operations Wayne Thibodeau, engineering manager Lionel Andujar, and toolmaker John Adams—or any of the company's other experienced manufacturers—working alongside apprentices, sharing their knowledge with the next generation.

While there are many workforce development programs and efforts throughout Connecticut, Spartan prefers to develop its own talent.

"We've been doing it for a few years now," Lehrer said of the company's apprenticeship efforts that are certified through the state Department of Labor.

"Baby boomers are on their way out, and aerospace manufacturing and manufacturing in general are becoming a lost art," he said.

'Not a Job, a Career'

One recent day at Spartan, Adams, the toolmaker, was working with Chris Lambert of South Windsor, a student at Cheney Technical High School in Manchester.

Adams said he loves working with apprentices and sharing all he knows.

"I enjoy teaching, especially someone like Chris, because he wants to learn," Adams said.

"I love my job," Lambert said. "It's challenging and it's something different every day."

When asked where he sees himself in 20 years, Lambert said, "Right here."

"That's what we like to hear," Lehrer said. "This isn't just a job, it's a career."

Thibodeau and Andujar each worked their way up through manufacturing, from apprentices to management positions at Spartan. Neither has a college degree.

Thibodeau learned his craft working alongside one of the company's most experienced toolmakers, and shares his knowledge the same way.

High School Partnerships

Lehrer said Spartan Aerospace bolstered its apprenticeship program by establishing relationships with area high schools, in particular Cheney Tech.

He has visited the school to meet with the dean of students and teachers to discuss the trades they offer and met with students and attended classes, including shop, to see how they were doing.

But the highlight was when Lehrer convinced the school to send a bus load of students to tour Spartan.

"It was a great opportunity for them to see that when you walk in here, you can eat off the floor," he said. "It's that clean.

This isn't just a job, it's a career.
— Spartan Aerospace's Zeke Lehrer
"That's one of the many things we have pride for in our shop. We work very hard to keep it clean.

"And you can see it right on the kids' faces when they walked in. They're like, 'Wow this isn't some dump where, for the rest of my life, I have to do manual labor, and absolutely hate it.'

"We've got lasers, we've got press brakes, we've got CNC equipment. There's some really interesting stuff they could be doing."

Electric Boat Revives Apprenticeships

The same thing that works for a small manufacturer like Spartan Aerospace also works for large manufacturers like General Dynamics Electric Boat.

EB's contracts with the U.S. Navy for dozens of Virginia class and Columbia class submarines, to be delivered over the next 20 years, is driving a number of innovative workforce development programs.

Electric Boat's Maura Dunn
"Critical skills shortage." Electric Boat's Maura Dunn speaks at the 2018 Made in Connecticut Manufacturing Summit.

"Federal agencies see the manufacturing skills shortage as a crisis," Maura Dunn, EB's vice president of human resources and administration, said at CBIA's 2018 Made In Connecticut Manufacturing Summit.

"They're looking to business to take the initiative to lead the way."

Dunn said EB is developing and expanding relationships with local communities, schools, and educators to meet its growing workforce needs.

"In the last three years we've found over 8,000 applicants that we wouldn't necessarily have found without those partnerships," she said.

EB works with career and technical education school systems in Rhode Island and Connecticut to build partnerships to expose more people to manufacturing, she said.

In addition, EB is using older workers as trainers and has revived its long-dormant apprenticeship program.

"We've had to take some our best people off the shop floor," said Dunn. "It hurts, but they have the magic in their hands to teach the next generation of workers as mentors.

"We discontinued our apprenticeship program for 20 years. Now, with the ramp-up in demand, we've reconstituted it through a partnership with the Connecticut Department of Labor."

Six-Figure Salaries

Lehrer makes sure to tell the students how much someone with training and experience can earn at Spartan.

"Aerospace manufacturing is one of the few businesses in the world where you can make over $100,000 a year without a college degree," he said.

"And as soon as you say that, the kids' faces light up. They say, 'Oh man. I can make that doing this and I get to work with the best technology available.'

We've had to take some our best people off the shop floor. It hurts, but they have the magic in their hands.
— Electric Boat's Maura Dunn
"The average cost of the machines we run here is $250,000."

In fact, a dozen employees in leadership and management positions at Spartan earn six figures annually despite having no college degree, Lehrer said.

Spartan, as of early January, had eight apprentices and three pre-apprentices in the shop, including students from a pre-apprenticeship certification program at Synergy High School in East Hartford.

Experience

Every apprentice is paired with an experienced manufacturer.

"We'll have a guy running a press brake who's getting ready for retirement in a year or two. So we pair him with a young kid who's coming out of trade school," Lehrer said.

"That's where they're going to learn this trade, so that all this tribal knowledge is getting passed down, and it isn't getting lost when they retire.

"And we never have to say, 'We can't make this part anymore because the guy who makes it is no longer with us.'"

Spartan also hires college mechanical engineering students to part-time positions while they are still in school.

By the time they graduate, Lehrer said, college students have experience working in the aerospace industry, and are familiar with Spartan's culture.

"We work with these students the same way we work with apprentices on the shop floor," Lehrer said.

"We pair them up with our top senior engineers and train them to be the next engineering workforce.

"That's why we call our shop a teaching shop."

Filed Under: Aerospace, Education, Manufacturing
  • Paul Huber

    As a former apprentice I sincerely appreciate the efforts of Spartan Aerospace and its staff which provide a challenging work environment leading to a pipeline for future highly skilled staff members.
    Your readers may smile, bemusing, after learning that Zeke Lehrer is truly a teacher since Lehrer is the German word for teacher.
    Twenty years ago I started to realize that industry and business leaders are their own worst enemies. Maura Dunn, Electric Boat’s V.P. of human resources and administration, does prove my point as she said: Federal agencies see the manufacturing skills shortage as a crisis” adding ” They’re are looking to business to take the initiative to lead the way” and then ” We discontinued our apprentice ship program for 20 years”.
    The Presidential Executive Order 13806 addresses, among other points, workforce and has elevated the skills gap in the defense industry specifically and manufacturing generally to a national security issue. The AMT (The Association For Manufacturing Technology) has taken the initiative to bring other metalworking related organizations and businesses to the table in support of this Department of Defense outreach focusing on skills competitions in career& technical education. AMT has the support of the American Welding Society (AWS) , National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS). SkillsUSA and several metalworking related corporations.
    Nine years after completing my machinist apprenticeship I started my own business, ten years later I did register our Apprenticeship program with the State of Connecticut. Another twenty years later I worked with the staff of CBIA on a successful project to have the State of Connecticut participate in a NIMS program allowing students to obtain NIMS certification at no cost and get schools with metalworking related classes to be accredited by NIMS
    at minimal costs.
    Industry’s partnership with the Connecticut Department of Labor will improve our skilled workforce, but we need all business leaders on board.
    Case in point: The US achieved the ninth place at the 2011 Worldskills competition, ever since its ranking has been in the twenties and thirties. SkillsUSA has mainly manufacturing industry supporters. SwissSkills is equally supported by industry and business, UBS is its main supporter who is concentrating it efforts by providing PR, and outreach to parents, , leaders of education and manufacturers. Switzerland was classified first in the past and has always been in the ten best ranking.
    Students in Austria, Germany and Switzerland and other EU countries enter apprenticeships at a rate of 55% to 70%, only 0.26 % of the American workforce is participating in apprenticeships.
    There are no concrete ROI results available to employers who desire to sponsor apprenticeships in the US, most other countries have fairly accurate statistics available for decision making business leaders. Therefore it easy for any “bean-counter” to shut-down an apprenticeship project without being presented with positive ROI figures.

    Paul Huber LSME