EKCEP Employer Services Team Assists Welding Company, Phillips Diversified, with Apprenticeship to Retain Skilled Employees

Clay Countian Joseph Taylor started off the new year in 2019 with a huge accomplishment—becoming a welding journeyman with Phillips Diversified Manufacturing, a contract manufacturer with five facilities in Clay and Jackson counties.

“I can only go up from here, and just continue to better myself,” Taylor says.

Taylor’s success and optimism for the future, he says, comes from being able to take part in an apprenticeship program his company started nearly two years ago.

Tracy Stivers, special projects manager for Phillips Diversified, says the program was borne out of a need for more qualified welders at the plant.

“The Kentucky Department of Labor’s apprenticeship office approached us about three years ago,” Stivers explains. “It kind of coincided with us having an enormous need for more welders—and a highly skilled, trained welder, there’s not that many of (here).”

Phillips’ management saw the apprenticeship program as an opportunity to develop their own advanced welders in-house and, with the right partnerships in place, increase the pay scale for welders and retain workers in a bid to reduce turnaround at the company.

In 2016, Phillips management met with officials from the state apprenticeship office, along with current welding educators in the area and the employer services team with the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, Inc. (EKCEP). The groups worked together in the following months to construct an in-house apprenticeship program for the company, complete with educational blueprints for the course and how Phillips could receive assistance with the cost of the program.

Bobby Cecil, a welding instructor at the Clay County Area Technical Center (ATC), was brought on as part of that team to help develop the educational component of the program.

“I actually came in and toured the plant and actually got a feel for what they did and what they actually needed, and what we really needed to focus on,” Cecil says, explaining that while the workers and welders at Phillips at the time were qualified, many had never received specific welding education before taking their positions at the company.

“In order to be really good at something, you need to know both sides of it—you need to know the educational part of why this is doing this and how you need to adjust, as well as the hands-on work,” he adds.

Cecil and the rest of the team decided on more of a fast-track approach to the educational component of the program, requiring only 144 apprenticeship hours per year until the apprentices earned their journeyman certificate, which takes 6,000 work hours to achieve. Welders with previous work experience can apply that to their required hours.

“That’s why it was really rigorous, the curriculum that I put together, because 144 hours is really not a lot of time. That’s why we really focus on the key points,” Cecil explains.

Stivers explains that the company knew they would have to spend money on the program in order to get a return on investment with their workers, but says EKCEP helped make that investment a little more feasible for them.

“EKCEP helped offset the cost of the training for this program and the teaching staff and the supplies that we have to have,” she says. “I really don’t know that we would have started this if EKCEP had not been there for us, because they do help with the financial cost. It is expensive, so, it has made a huge difference.”

The improvement in the work has been clear since nearly day one, adds Ed Watson, one of the welding mentors on staff with Phillips. Mentors like Watson supervise apprentices’ work during the course of the program, and these trained journeymen are now returning a higher quality product.

“Going through the program and then coming back to work, I noticed a big difference in the welders’ quality,” Watson says. “It’s been a real benefit to the whole company.”

Though the program and increase in pay scale may have initially put a slight burden on Phillips, Stivers says the cost is being repaid in ways management at the company never anticipated, from a complete reduction in rejected parts to an increase in business due to the company’s reputation in manufacturing circles.

“We’ve even gotten more business just from the word of mouth out in the welding world—the parts that we give you are made by welding journeymen, and that is a good reputation for a company to have,” she adds.

Since implementation of the program, one full class has finished, Stivers says, and the second will be wrapping up in May 2019. Eight welders have participated in the program so far, with three, including Taylor, having completed it and earned their journeyman certificate. Two of the remaining five are high school students currently participating in the TRACK Program through Clay County ATC.

“By the time they’re 21 years old, they’re going to be at our top pay scale,” Stivers says of the high school participants.

Cecil says this opportunity is just what students and workers in the area alike are craving.

“Obviously, students come in now with an expectation of getting a certification and going to work, and the thing about the apprenticeship now is that these guys are hand selected,” he explains. “With the apprenticeship, and through the TRACK program with the high schools and the ATCs, you’re getting the best student that you could possibly get. They have the skills to go to work, all they need is the on-the-job training.”

The company’s hope, Stivers adds, is to be able to recruit future welders from the area through their apprenticeship program so they won’t have to worry about losing quality workers in the future, while also keeping their existing workers with advanced educational opportunities.

Working with Phillips is the best opportunity for Taylor, he says, if he wants to stay in the welding field and in the Eastern Kentucky region. And even though he has achieved his journeyman certificate, he knows he can count on his employer to help him work to better himself in his profession thanks to the opportunity with the apprenticeship program.

“It’s kind of hard to jump straight in on the job and be able to get all the training that you need to do a specific job,” he says, adding he knows he wouldn’t be where he is today without the apprenticeship program. “As far as having the time to actually focus on one thing and getting good at it, I don’t think I would have without the apprenticeship program.”

EKCEP, a nonprofit workforce development agency headquartered in Hazard, Ky., serves the citizens of 23 Appalachian coalfield counties. The agency provides an array of workforce development services, administers the Hiring Our Miners Everyday (H.O.M.E.) program for dislocated coal miners and their spouses, and is the White House-designated lead organization for the federal TechHire designation for Eastern Kentucky. Learn more about us at http://www.ekcep.org, http://www.jobsight.org and http://www.facebook.com/ekcep.