Festo Didactic’s Mechatronics Apprenticeship program connects theory, training, and opportunity.
By Michelle Segrest, Contributing Editor
Carolin McCaffrey believes that the renaissance of manufacturing in the United States requires a sustainable talent pipeline. As the head of Festo Didactic Inc.’s Learning Center Midwest (near Cincinnati), she explained, “Apprenticeships will make manufacturing shine again. Our program is all about closing the skills gap.”
For the past three years, McCaffrey has driven the NJ-headquartered company’s mission to bring educators and employers closer together to develop today’s idea of advanced, skills-driven manufacturing. The core of this mission is the Mechatronics Apprenticeship Program created by eight partners from the greater Cincinnati area: Festo Didactic, Sinclair Community College in Mason, manufacturing consultant TechSolve, and employers Art Metal Group, Clippard Instruments, Festo Automation, MQ Automation, and Nestlé.
The program is inspired by an ever-evolving world of manufacturing, combined with a closing gap in skilled talent. The idea is to teach the skills today’s workforce needs and help recruit more young people into manufacturing.
Festo’s involvement with the program was initiated by the European-American Chamber of Commerce. German-native McCaffrey had worked in the United States, with ties to similar education programs in Germany, and Festo management was interested in contributing to the greater Cincinnati community. McCaffrey had experience consulting for German countries entering the U.S. market. She conducted a market analysis and found that the companies and the program fit nicely.
The program is based on a German model that has been successful for many years. However, it is not a copy-and-paste program. It has been modified to accommodate cultural and environmental elements. The companies involved requested that the program train for multi-skilled and multi-crafted workers. Therefore, Mechatronics is designed to include mechanical, electrical, controls, and IT skills.
“We developed the program around mating these dots together to make sure we defined appropriately what it is that poses the biggest skills challenge for the companies,” McCaffrey explained. “This combination hits about 70% of the companies’ needs when it comes to that basic education and training for their multi-skilled, multi-crafted workers. From the get-go that was an exercise that we went through that translated to the curriculum development.”
The two-year program includes an Associate degree through the local community college, paid for by the company. Training is 70% hands on. During a typical day, trainees spend the first hour or two at a desk learning foundational knowledge. The rest of the day is spent learning about equipment and applying their new knowledge through hands-on exercises designed to complement the curriculum.
“We make sure that we collaborate with industry companies and colleges, but also provide this knowledge for internal employees for our Festo automation group, which is how the company started 50 years ago—with the basic need for a highly trained workforce,” McCaffrey explained. “This is a continuous path that we have been on. We have this synergy between internal needs and external product offerings, which we developed in partnership with our own company, but also external companies and the supply chain.”
Inspiration and philosophy
McCaffrey has spent her entire career involved in some type of learning area. It’s the people who provide her with the inspiration needed to drive the program.
“When you look at the philosophy of Festo Didactic, you can have innovation, maintenance, and reliability, but how do you accomplish that without real people?” she asked. “We believe the last puzzle piece that is always missing is the people and the trained workforce. I got inspired by watching people grow in their quest for knowledge and skills—specifically with apprentices who just graduated from high school and are at the beginning of their career path. They have about three ‘aha’ moments each day. These are the ones who inspire innovation. This is where we get our rewards—when we see them learn and grow.”
McCaffrey can cite many examples of how the program has helped the student trainees grow in their skill set.
“One of the first hands-on training exercises was how to hold a hammer,” she remembered. “They did not know the proper way to hold a hammer. They did not know how to position a nail. So they went through about 600 nails that were literally flying all over the place. Guess what? They are now capable of putting stuff together, helping with projects, being part of other departments, preparing requests for proposals, and many other skills. It’s amazing the learning curve in the first six months from not knowing how to hold a hammer to actively contributing to the productivity of the company. It’s difficult to describe how rewarding this is for our team.”
“I incorporate teaching the best practice of keeping an open mind and the benefits of learning something new every day,” McCaffrey said. “This can be very complex—especially the open-mind part. Learning the technical part is one thing, but knowing how to maneuver with the technical knowledge through a company, how to cooperate, how to be a good team player, how to be innovative . . . all of that is part of the program.”
The program teaches skills such as the importance of showing up on time, how to dress, how to shake hands, and how to effectively communicate. “These are all very simple examples of learning that we have solidly incorporated into the curriculum,” she said. “It is something that our trainers do on a daily basis—specifically with the younger apprentices in the program. You might be surprised to see the huge learning curve just on that side of soft skills.”
Drilling on the soft skills hopefully becomes second nature with time. “We want them to learn the soft skills and then truly focus on the technical knowledge. The soft skills stay the same, but the technology keeps changing. We’ve entered a new speed of technology, and we have to learn every day.”
The apprenticeship program
The program includes Lean manufacturing and theory, as well as deep technical lessons. For example, the Lean-production class simulates a corporation. Students are given roles—such as CEO, CFO, production manager, financial manager—and real-world scenarios are introduced to see how the students behave in simulated situations. This teaches skills such as critical thinking, communication, planning, and teamwork.
There are four trainers with the program in Mason, all from the Learning Center. Two are full-time trainers and consultants who also serve as program administrators. There is a pool of freelance trainers that includes remote employees. The program is also duplicated and modified for use in other global branches of the companies. For example, the apprenticeship program had a U.S. trainer who has performed the apprentice training for the past 20 years, but also a German trainer who has performed the same function, but in Germany.
The apprentices do not have to be college students. Half of them came to the program directly from high school and the others were incumbent workers.
However, they all had to pass a college test such as the ACT or SAT. This first apprentice class had 12 seats and this year’s class will probably have a maximum of 16 seats. It is a competitive program with an application, referral, and interview process for selection. The companies pay the educational fees and a wage for the training.
Many high schools pre-select and refer potential candidates who have demonstrated a technical aptitude and interest. Once they have passed the initial screening process, they will be hired by the companies and then, as a second step, go through the college-placement testing. Most of the participants are located in close geographical range of the program.
The requirements to enter the program are strict and selective, but completion practically guarantees the graduate an immediate position with the sponsoring company and the opportunity for a lifetime career in manufacturing. McCaffrey said she believes the program is successful because it focuses on a team approach.
“It is the partnership between the college, Festo Didactic, and the employers,” she said. “Everyone has the same mission. Everyone is striving for the same goal. The combination of the knowledge, the general college education, the hands-on training, and the on-the-job training almost ensures success. The combination between theoretical education, hands-on training, and on-the-job training translates to a valuable degree.”
The mutual benefits of the apprentice and the sponsoring company make the program unique. “This is where the future lies,” McCaffrey said. “We are, on the one hand a manufacturing company, but we are also educators without being a college. We bring both of those sides to the table. We want to be that bridge. We want to translate the theoretical knowledge into providing people with skills that the manufacturing companies need. That is what this really boils down to. For the apprentices, it’s really a no brainer. It’s a paid education, it’s a job, it’s a career, it’s a degree—all this adds up to a very unique and outstanding opportunity.”
Making it work
Even though the markets are different, McCaffrey has been able to marry her German and American influences to bridge the cultural gap that makes the German-based program work in the U.S. Married to an American, McCaffrey has a 14-year-old daughter who has dual German/American citizenship and finds the combination of cultures is an excellent foundation for the program’s success.
“I figured that markets are different, people are different, countries are different, but how does that apply to business concepts and projects that companies want to pursue?” she explained. “Personally, I am always inspired by new people. I tend to be a very curious person, so I love talking to people and hearing their stories, understanding their goals, and seeing how we can possibly work together. If you apply this philosophy to the Learning Center and Festo, developing this apprenticeship is an extension of who I am. So this makes me happy to have the opportunity to be a part of this.
“It’s really creating something for the companies and also for the students. Seeing it grow and come together is the interesting piece. I am a firm believer that this is a really good model. We are now on our way to making it work and making it successful.” MT
Michelle Segrest has been a professional journalist for 27 years. If you know of a maintenance and/or reliability expert who is making a difference at their facility, email her at email@example.com.