WAVERLY — Machinists were in short supply at GMT Corp. when Jamie Kramer started there as a human resources manager just over a year ago.
GMT employs almost 300 workers in three Waverly facilities. The company does production manufacturing for numerous industries such as military, agriculture, wind energy, gas and oil, airline and construction.
“We had 25 or more openings just in this building,” she said, referring to a plant where cast iron parts are machined for John Deere and Caterpillar. “The worker shortage is horrible now.”
The company also is thinking ahead to typical turnover and expected retirements in the coming years. It began providing six weeks of basic in-house training to new employees who were hired without completing a program in computer numerical control machining.
In January, GMT also launched a registered apprenticeship program with the help of Hawkeye Community College. The apprenticeship lasts five years and the six participating employees commit to working for the company at least three years after completing it.
“We decided we can’t find machinists, so we’re going to make our own,” said Kramer. “So, we went from 25 openings to under five.”
The apprenticeship and others like it are just one way Hawkeye is responding to changing needs in the community. Various registered apprenticeships through the college enroll approximately 200 people.
“We’re the leader in the state when it comes to apprenticeships and working with industry to provide them to their employees,” said Dave Grunklee, dean of business and applied technologies.
Hawkeye also is working with high schools and area industries to develop pre-apprenticeship programs that expose students to a particular career field. That is an outgrowth of the college’s work on high school career academies and pathways. The programs offer concurrent Hawkeye credit to high school students while providing education about career options and potentially putting them on the path to earning a degree or another credential.
In addition, the college has a growing profile in downtown Waterloo with the January opening of the Van G. Miller Adult Learning Center. The three-story facility replaces the Metro and Martin Luther King Junior centers. It doubles Hawkeye’s capacity to serve those earning high school and equivalency diplomas as well as English learners.
The college plans to expand programs at the new center allowing adult learners to enroll in credit classes where they can earn a credential or an associate’s degree. Currently, that includes the certified nursing assistant and CNC machining programs.
The hospitality management degree program is also moving downtown from Hawkeye’s main campus. Students will use the center’s cafe as a learning lab along with some of the adult learners from various programs.
Low unemployment levels are making it more important for companies to increase the methods they use to connect with potential workers. Education and training play a role in those efforts.
“I fully anticipate we’re going to have a bunch of different modes and ways we’re going to be providing education to people, both credit and noncredit,” said Grunklee, pointing to GMT’s new apprenticeship as a prime example. “They know the more educated workforce they have, the more product and better product they can put out.”
Participating employees have a two-hour class twice a week that partially overlaps with their work shifts. They are gaining blueprint reading and CNC machining skills while getting 8,000 hours of on-the-job learning. They are expected to earn certifications in both areas and be qualified for a journeyman’s license by the time the apprenticeship is finished.
As the apprentices reach milestones in the program, their pay increases. In addition, with 720 hours of classroom time, they are earning 34 Hawkeye Community College credits. All of the costs for the program are absorbed by the company, although it is seeking some grant funding.
This is not expected to be GMTs only foray into apprenticeships. By the end of the year, the company hopes to have four groups of apprentices, some learning skills in other areas like welding.
Flexibility is important, both for GMT and the college. Grunklee noted that it is unusual to host the classroom portion at the business.
Apprenticeships are “mainly run through our noncredit business and industry side of the college,” he explained, so having apprentices earn college credit is a new approach. “They would usually be doing it at our Cedar Falls center or one of our other centers. It’s a rather unique situation, we had to get some special approval.”
It required some investment by GMT, as well.
“What makes us unique is we have our own certified instructor here,” said Kramer. They’ve hired Jamie Dettmer, who was a CNC machining instructor at HCC for 17 years, to lead the classes.
“I’m glad that you’re letting us do this,” apprentice Ethan Lines told Kramer after one of his recent blueprint reading classes. “It’s starting to make the job much easier.”
Lines was trained as an auto mechanic, but the right job didn’t materialize. So he applied at GMT on the advice of a friend and has been working there since April 2018.
“Originally, they wanted to hire me for preventive maintenance,” Lines said, but agreed to try him in machining. He likes the learn-as-you-go approach. During work shifts, he’s using knowledge gained in class while getting assistance from supervisors and Dettmer in areas not yet mastered.
“I feel that this job is very rewarding,” added Lines. Part of that reward is the wages.
“By year five,” Kramer noted, “they will be guaranteed at being topped-out at Machinist 1,” one of three pay grades for the position. However, the company expects some of the workers to have progressed further by that point.
“They’re establishing their career path,” Kramer added. “We’re just giving them the tools to do it.”