Finding a successful career does not always require a four-year degree, sometimes you only need an apprenticeship
By Megan Tsevelekos, Marketing Specialist at Mazak Optonics Corp.
Maintaining a full-capacity of skilled workers has become a challenge among companies in the manufacturing and fabrication industries. The limited availability of qualified workers is due to the skills gap and aging workforce epidemic that the industry is seeing. The high demand for more skilled workers is what led Mark Dilling, General Manager of Customer Service at Mazak Optonics, to create an apprenticeship program at Mazak.
Mazak Optonics’ inaugural apprenticeship program began in January 2019 with five members. Aujuddin Shaikh, Ruben Luna, Omar Avitia, Bre Barnett, and Thomas Brown were selected to participate in the six-month-long Mazak apprenticeship program.
How does the apprenticeship work?
Mazak’s apprenticeship is an earn-while-you learn training program with the first four months being a combination of classroom learning and hands-on training. This strategy enables the apprentices to nail down the theory of fundamentals and functions in laser-cutting technology. During this time, the apprentices focused on learning mechanical and electrical fundamentals, pneumatics and hydraulics, and machine installation processes. Dilling explained, “We split up each day to cover both learning tactics. Mornings were spent in the classroom learning the theory of why and how, while the afternoons were spent in the showroom training and implementing with practical examples. Engineers are very tactical people, because of that, hands-on training is essential for learning theory.”
After four months of learning, the last two months of the apprenticeship involved on-the-job training. The apprentices got to experience what the position truly required, which includes continuous traveling. While traveling is a great opportunity, it also presents a challenge for some people. “We can teach anyone to fix our machines, but what I can’t teach is how to live out of a suitcase. That’s why they needed two months of working in the field, to experience the nature of a customer environment and also the travel requirements needed for the job,” said Dilling.
The path to new opportunities has been paved after six months of dedicated learning and training. Now that the five apprentices have completed the program, they are ready to share their experiences.
Fabricating New Opportunities
Prior to the apprenticeship program, working in the metal fabrication industry was not initially at the top of mind for these mentees. In fact, all but one of the apprentices began their journey on different paths that eventually lead them all into the fabrication industry.
Initially, Aujuddin (AJ) Shaikh’s career path was computer science. “Growing up I was fascinated with computers and learning everything, I was an information sponge at school,” said Shaikh. But he realized computer science was not what he expected it to be. However, this information sponge mindset pushed him to expand his horizons where he discovered a CNC machinist training course at Symbol Training Institute. He completed courses in CNC programing and operation as well as quality control in manufacturing.
At age 22, Ruben Luna actually started working in the fabrication industry and has 20 years of experience in welding and HVAC. While working a temporary job, a discussion with Fred Sajacks, a building engineer on the job site, changed Luna’s career perspective. “Fred encouraged me to go back to school for my long-term future. I went to E.T.I. Trade School for a year, where I learned HVAC and also did a four-year program with Sheet Metal Local 265 Carol Stream where I worked as a journeyman for 12 years.” said Luna. After working in the union for several years, Luna decided to enroll at Symbol Training Institute in 2018 where he gained certifications to be a CNC machinist.
Thomas Brown began his journey to the fabrication industry by studying Industrial Engineering at the University of Arkansas Pine Bluff. A drive to learn more lead him to taking classes at Symbol Training Institute. He said, “My influence to pursue a career in the fabrication industry came from wanting to learn more. I wanted to be more skilled and become more marketable.” Brown gained certifications from Symbol Training Institute in lathe and mill operations, along with quality control.
Symbols Training Institute works hand-in-hand with employers to help place students in needed positions within manufacturing. To achieve this, they host job fairs to connect students with employers seeking skilled workers. While attending one of the institute’s job fairs, Shaikh, Luna and Brown all met Mark Dilling. After meeting Dilling, they all knew that an apprenticeship would be an advantageous opportunity for their future by advancing their skills.
While three of the apprentices discovered the Mazak apprenticeship program through a career fair, Omar Avitia and Bre Barnett found their way to Mazak’s apprenticeship by already being a part of the Mazak team.
Omar Avitia started working at Mazak Optonics in 2016 and has become engrained within the company. Avitia explained, “Since I have been with Mazak, I have been given the opportunity to move up in the ranks by growing my skillset and working different positions. I began as a Picker Packer and then I was a Parts Customer Service Representative.” It was working around the engineers at Mazak that attracted Avitia to join in on the action. He said, “Once the apprenticeship opened, I knew this was my chance to learn more and travel while doing it.”
Bre Barnett was searching for a career change when she was hired on as the Call Center Coordinator at Mazak Optonics. She explained, “Most of my previous jobs were in the retail and customer service industry, which has been useful coming into Mazak.” It was not long until Dilling brought the apprenticeship to Barnett’s attention. “I have always been mechanically inclined, and the machines’ capabilities always interested me,” said Barnett. Another motivator to join the apprenticeship was the lack of women in the industry. She mentioned, “I wanted to show people that women are capable of having a career in this male-dominated industry. I felt empowered to show people that I can do this too.”
No matter what their previous paths were, their future success was powered by Mazak’s apprenticeship program.
Having the proper training and resources are crucial to learning new skills. While course material is essential for learning laser-technology, having the proper instructors is just as important. Dilling explained, “In order for the curriculum to be successful, you have to make sure you have the right people teaching it.” Dilling selected four highly regarded and experienced engineers to help plan and execute the apprenticeship program.
Rebekah Skinner, Gary Pyles, John Richling and Jim Blahnik were selected to teach the apprenticeship. Dilling said, “I chose these engineers to instruct our apprenticeship program for two reasons: they are all masters of their trade and proficient with explaining techniques.” Combining the instructors’ different areas of expertise and perspectives helps give the apprentices a more well-rounded learning experience.
Between Skinner, Pyles, Richling and Blahnik, the program has over 40 years of combined experience at Mazak with machine installations, servicing machines and customer support. Dilling added, “Having multiple people teaching the program allows for an apprentice to be able to connect with at least one of the instructors. The varied experiences and personality really attributed to the success of the program.”
Learning from a variety of talented engineers allowed the apprentices to develop their knowledge in laser-cutting technology. However, they also gained much more from the program beyond turning wrenches.
For Avitia, learning about laser technology came more naturally with the help of the Mazak apprenticeship. “I learned everything from the basics to the more advanced knowledge about how the lasers operate. I had the opportunity to learn from four great instructors with a lot of experience, while also having the support of a great company, that made it even better,” said Avitia.
Luna agreed that having the proper resources and instructors were fundamental to his success. He explained, “Prior to the program, I had no clue about fabrication with laser technology. The apprenticeship helped me grow. Not only by training us on new state-of-the-art equipment, but by also providing me with the tools and resources necessary to succeed, including having a skilled crew to learn from.” Through collaboration, Luna was able to overcome challenges during the apprenticeship with the help of Mazak’s experienced instructors and his fellow apprentices.
Shaikh was able to grow outside of this comfort zone by going through the apprenticeship. “Being a curious natured individual, the apprenticeship really allowed me to expand my knowledge and confidence regarding material that was never really discussed, or mentioned, in high school. The critical thinking, mechanical skills, and electrical skills that I learned as an apprentice are invaluable,” explained Shaikh.
Brown was also able to expand his knowledge from being in the apprenticeship program. “Because of my similar background in the industrial industry, the apprenticeship was a perfect fit for me to learn more and grow my skillset. I gained the necessary knowledge and skills to perform mechanics, electronics, and pneumatics on the Mazak laser-cutting machines and automation,” stated Brown.
However, their biggest takeaway from the apprenticeship program is more than just added skills and knowledge, it is a new career.
The goal of the apprenticeship program was to add skilled workers to expand Mazak’s workforce capabilities. With the 2019 session being the inaugural program, success was uncertain. “We didn’t know what success would look like. I figured if we were able to hire at least two of the five apprentices, then that would be pretty good for our first time. Fortunately, we hired all five of the apprentices, which I’m proud of,” said Dilling. Mazak was able to gain four installation engineers and one technical support engineer through the Mazak apprenticeship program.
After successfully completing the apprenticeship program, Shaikh, Luna, Avitia, Barnett, and Brown have earned a new career with Mazak. The apprenticeship program allowed for a smooth transition into their new full-time positions. “Everyone’s progress has been excellent. They are now more self-sufficient with their work and are contributing to Mazak’s workforce and increased customer support capacity,” said Dilling.
While this was a success for Mazak, it is also a huge win for the apprentices who were hired on as full-time engineers. Being able to feel success has been a rewarding outcome for the apprentices. Luna said, “What’s made me feel successful is that I am able to be more self-sufficient with my work by completing tasks on my own. Seeing it all come together with the machine working and happy customers has been my favorite part.” On top of this, Luna feels that he is more successful now with his career at Mazak because he can combine all his previous experiences to be a more versatile employee.
Shaikh has also experienced success in his new career. “As an Installation Engineer, I get instant gratification from being able to apply what I’ve learned from the apprenticeship to complete my job duties. I’m able to use my skills in a variety of unique ways while working in different, often challenging environments, such as using my problem-solving foundation to troubleshoot and my acquired mechanics knowledge to streamline otherwise difficult tasks,” explained Shaikh. Another way Shaikh has felt success is by being knowledgeable enough to now help his fellow apprentices as well as other Mazak engineers with tasks such as troubleshooting.
Barnett has been motivated to grow into her new position. She said, “I have had a lot of support and encouragement from many people here at Mazak. These supporters, along the apprenticeship program itself, have allowed me to become more comfortable asking questions. I am still learning the ropes of technical support, but I have been fortunate enough to have assistance from my team on problems I haven’t encountered before.” She further explained, “Since becoming a technical support engineer, Mazak has allowed me to continue to gain more knowledge so I can continue to grow and learn. I have been able to do additional training in the showroom with Randy Marshall. He encourages me to try to fix a problem while also taking the time to explain what is going on, what may have caused the problem, all while walking me through the fix.”
Lastly, success for Avitia has come in many forms. “After completing the apprenticeship, doors have opened up for me. It has motivated me to continue to grow and keep pursing my new career,” said Avitia. The apprenticeship sparked a new-found passion for his job as well. He explained, “I used to fix phones prior to working at Mazak, so I like putting things together like a puzzle which is great for installing our laser machines. It’s what I love about my job.” Enjoying his newly established career and among great colleagues has been gratifying for Avitia. “What made this experience so great is the people. The instructors, and Mazak in general, were great to work with and made me feel comfortable. This makes people want to stay and continue to grow,” said Avitia.
Investing in a Future Career
Making decisions regarding your career can be strenuous. However, Mazak’s newly hired engineers agreed that an apprenticeship will benefit you in the end, regardless of the path you decide to take.
“If you are starting an apprenticeship, I would say you have made a great choice. If you are thinking about doing one, what are you waiting for?” stated Avitia. Luna agreed and advised, “My advice for someone thinking about joining an apprenticeship program, would be to join. In the long run, if you apply yourself with the material and tools given, it will take you down a great career path. Apprenticeship programs are designed to help mold you into the workforce.” Shaikh concluded, “Enrolling in an apprenticeship is a smart, long-term financial move. The ability to move up as experience increases is almost guaranteed. If you are interested in an apprentice program in any field, or even want to test the waters of that industry, I would highly encourage any individual to consider that opportunity.”
Whether you are looking for a career change or are simply unsure of what your career calling is, consider applying to an apprenticeship. You do not need to have prior experience to join an apprenticeship, just a desire to learn new skills. The best part of taking on an apprenticeship is being able to earn money while you learn the needed skills. Apprenticeships are a win-win situation for the employer and the newly trained apprentices. Employers get the skilled employees they need, while apprentices are able to establish their careers.
With top talent being limited, it is crucial to continuously invest in building skilled workers for the future of the manufacturing and fabrication industry. If you or someone you know is looking for a career change or an opportunity in the fabrication industry, consider joining the Mazak apprenticeship program. The next program aims to commence in January 2021. Be sure to check our website for updates on the next Mazak apprenticeship program.