JCB apprenticeship program offers Savannah students education, experience and a paycheck

It’s been five years since JCB’s then-president John Patterson decided to put his money where his mouth was, turning one of his company’s most frustrating problems — finding skilled employees who actually wanted to work — into a program that trained, developed and hired new workers on the company dime, a program that continues under the leadership of current President & CEO Arjun Mirdha.

The JCB apprenticeship program is not a quick fix. Rather it is designed to grow a skilled and knowledgeable workforce while dispelling the old perception of manufacturing as a dirty, low-paying job and spotlighting the high-tech, well-paying job it has become.

In 2012, with the encouragement and blessing of the state’s top officials and in partnership with Savannah Technical College, JCB selected five recent high school graduates from a field of more than 70 applicants to begin paid apprenticeships with the heavy equipment manufacturer. Today, three of the five remain with the program, beginning their fifth and final year in a journey they say has given them an education, experience and a career – all while earning a paycheck.

‘Who we are…how far we’ve come’

Laurence Hayes, who came to JCB from Islands High School four years ago, hopes to land a position in new product test and development with JCB when he finishes his final year. He began his apprenticeship studying welding and has rotated through every department on the manufacturing side of the business, he said. “We’ve done everything from fabrication to welding, repair, assembly, purchasing, computer aided design, testing and quality control,” he said. “We’ve really done it all.” “It’s helped us hone in on our strengths and weaknesses. We know what we’re good at now, compared to when we started.”

Ben Tounge was a new Savannah resident when joined the first group, having just graduated from Southwestern High School in Somerset, Ky. “I didn’t know too much about manufacturing when I started, just what I read online,” he said. “I had no idea how much went into the building of a machine – didn’t know how many different people departments and skills it took, from design and assembly to parts procurement. “Working here has really opened my eyes to that.”

Tounge, like Hayes, started in welding and rotated through all the different disciplines.

“Right now, I’m a quality apprentice, so I’m working on the quality control side of the machines. I hope one day to be in quality leadership or quality engineering. “Doing the rotations and learning everything from the ground up has really helped me, not only to acquire manufacturing skills, but to strengthen things like team building and communications skills.

Being in charge of a project has helped me develop leadership skills. “The opportunities we’ve been given have really shaped who we are and how far we’ve come.” Hayes agreed. “It’s just been an invaluable experience.”

The third remaining apprentice, Jacob Lindsey, is taking a different path – he’s at Georgia Southern in the manufacturing engineering program, working summers and semester breaks at JCB. When he finishes his degree, he will begin full-time at JCB, which is paying his tuition and other college-related expenses.

An evolving experience

Like most new projects, the apprenticeship program has been tweaked over the years to meet the needs of both JCB and the apprentices. For example, what started out as a three-year program has morphed into five years – the first three a mix of hands-on skills training at JCB and classroom work at Savannah Technical College, and the last two primarily on the job. What was originally a set classroom time is now up to the apprentice – he or she must complete 18 school hours and 22 JCB hours a week.

“That gives the apprentice the opportunity to design a class schedule that is most effective for them,” said Amy Thomas, JCB’s apprentice coordinator. Another change is that, with the longer program, apprentices are expected to earn an associate’s degree from Savannah Tech, rather than a certificate.

“Most of them earn an industrial power systems degree,” Thomas said.

And, the program continues to bring in new apprentices every year, with the skill mix changing to meet the business needs. “Our business has changed so much over the years,” said Tim Witter, JCB vice president for manufacturing. “Right now, what we’re looking for is a mix of technical, hands-on assembly workers; we’re looking for purchasing assistants, technical engineering assistants.

“We’ve really evolved the program to look at what we can recruit as a skilled employee at the end of five years. So, rather than focus solely on the manufacturing floor, in the last few years we’ve also given them exposure to some of the office and administration jobs,” Witter said. “It’s no longer just welding and turning wrenches. We currently have some apprentices in the purchasing department, interacting with suppliers. We have several in the manufacturing engineering department, trying to refine process and factory layout. We have apprentices in our quality department, assisting with quality assurance measurements.”

Apprentices are considered full-time JCB employees from the first day, with an entry level starting salary and the full JCB benefits package with the opportunity for performance-based salary increases annually.

“Our apprentices get exposed to some of the best job assignments and some of the most challenging, like the endurance area where we have new products that we’re literally trying to break,” Witter said, laughing. “They’ve all had to take shifts were they run machines for eight to 10 hours at a time.

Making a match, making a difference : In the end, the program’s goal is basically two-fold, said Tonya Poole, Vice President of Human Resources. “We want to graduate apprentices that have positions at JCB that are meaningful, purposeful, beneficial work,” she said. “At the same time, we want to develop positions that fill a need here.” Because they have spent five years getting an in-depth look at so many facets of the business, neither are they likely to be looking at a typical starting salary.

“Two of our apprentices have already been put through leadership training so they might be able to take lead positions in their department early on,” she said. “The fact that the JCB apprentices have rotated through so many aspects of the business certainly makes them more flexible and diverse employees,” Thomas said. That’s an advantage that hasn’t escaped other manufacturers.

“I’ve given a number of presentations on the program, most of them facilitated by the Georgia Association of Manufacturers, the state workforce investment boards and economic development groups,” Witter said. “There’s rarely a month that goes by that we don’t get a request from a company or group wanting to know more about the program.” And, while there is rarely a lack of interested students, Thomas and Witter continue to go out to the high schools with their most senior apprentices to pitch the program and invite high school groups to come see for themselves.

Brand new apprentices Frank Tanner and Michael Daly, both learned about the program through a work-based program at Savannah Arts Academy.

“I’ve always been mechanically inclined, but really didn’t know what direction that might take,” Tanner said. “I knew I didn’t want to focus on one skill for years only to find out that wasn’t it. “I think this program is going to be great for me to narrow down what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Daly actually did an internship at JCB during high school. “I really enjoyed it,” he said. “I loved the environment and the people. “Ben and Laurence actually mentored us during the internship, answering all our questions and telling us about the apprenticeship program. “It’s a great deal. Five years, an education, plenty of experience and no student loans at the end,” he said. “You just can’t beat it.”

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