Northwest Technical Institute works to feed robust demand for maintenance techs

by Kim Souza ( 511 views 

Kagan Stephens, left, of St. Paul and Maricruz Onesto of Fayetteville work on motor mounting during one of their hands-on training sessions recently at the boot camp being taught at Northwest Technical Institute Business and Industry campus in Springdale. Stephens and Onesto are employed at Cargill in Springdale as entry-level maintenance techs and are taking part in a month-long boot camp for maintenance techs to learn basic skills.

It may not be a glamorous job, but it pays well and there is no shortage of work for experienced maintenance techs across Northwest Arkansas. In fact, as many as 300 new maintenance techs are needed each year just to keep up the current production pace, according to Mike Harvey, COO of the Northwest Arkansas Council.

“These jobs pay better than line work and they require problem-solving skills, but we just don’t have enough folks wanting to do this work,” Harvey told Talk Business & Politics. “I think the term ‘maintenance’ does little to actually describe what this job entails. It requires some serious skills, but they use their heads more than their hands.”

Northwest Technical institute (NTI) in Springdale — working with the Serrano Group and the state’s workforce development programs — has been teaching a maintenance tech boot camp for the past several months. The instruction offers a basic introduction in motor control, electrical, hydraulics and pneumatics, which are the central nervous system of manufacturing plants. It’s the maintenance technicians that must work to keep the lines running because when a line goes down that’s money lost.

Greasing motors, changing belts and replacing fuses are part of the routine maintenance required. But there are other times when programing or coding is needed to set up or change a particular line. A good maintenance tech understands what it takes to make a plant run efficiently and effectively.

Tom Freking, executive director of business and industry at NTI, told Talk Business & Politics maintenance techs are few and far between and local industry is hurting for more. He said companies like Cargill are figuring out that they must invest and train young candidates in the field to keep up with the demand in its own plant.

Shane Acosta, plant manager at Cargill in Springdale, told Talk Business & Politics the company understands many folks don’t come to Cargill with the skills needed in maintenance jobs. He said the plant has 78 people working in its maintenance department, which helps support 1,100 total jobs in the plant

“With the rise in automation in manufacturing more technicians will be needed,” Acosta said. “We decided to partner with NTI to help give our new maintenance recruits a basic boot camp training, and we will then add specific hands-on training once they begin working in the plant.”

Freking said too many times industry in the region recruits from other industry, but that is just “robbing Peter to pay Paul” and isn’t a solution to a major shortage that will widen as more U.S. manufacturing comes online and automation expands.

Over the next three weeks eight maintenance tech recruits from Cargill will finish out their one-month boot camp training at NTI. Freking said the course costs $10,000 but there is grant money from the Office Skills Development program of the Arkansas Department of Workforce Services to help defray that cost.

The recruits attend school six days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. over a four-week period. During that time they learn the basics of electrical circuits, high voltage circuitry, motor control, mechanical drives, hydraulics and pneumatics. He said most of the students who come through the training have no mechanical backgrounds but when they finish the course successfully, they are employable and can continue to hone their skills within the industry they are working.

The Cargill trainees earn their beginning salary while completing the one-month long boot camp. Freking said entry level maintenance jobs range from $14 to $18 per hour.

“It everyone had basic maintenance tech skills we wouldn’t have to worry about minimum wage,” he added.

Harvey said the jobs can be demanding and require working strange hours, but the pay is good. Maintenance techs are not a new need. Last summer an executive from Tyson Foods said during a workforce training summit in Springdale that he was having a heck of time trying to fill a maintenance supervisor job at $60,000 per year.

Jack Murders, plant manager at Marshalltown Tools in Fayetteville, also told Talk Business & Politics he could hire engineers fairly easily, but the experienced maintenance technicians were the hardest jobs to fill in his plant.

“We are constantly recruiting and looking for skilled maintenance technicians,” he said. “As manufacturers, it’s one of the great challenges we face in this region and in many other regions in the US. We’ve had some success hiring maintenance personnel going through maintenance coursework at NTI and I hope they can continue to grow and develop that program.”

Maricruz Onesto, a 20-year old Cargill employee, said she was excited to be in the maintenance tech boot camp. She’s worked for Cargill for the past year and started on the line, but later earned a promotion to a quality assurance role.

“I have always liked the maintenance department and understanding how things work, so when I got an opportunity to test for a chance to get this training I was really excited,” Onesto said.

Onesto was one of two employees already working at Cargill who took the aptitude test and scored the highest to get a slot in the NTI boot camp. Freking said Cargill allowed two people within the plant to transition, the other six recruits are new hires to Cargill.

Kagan Stephens, 19, of St. Paul, said he wanted to work for Cargill straight out of high school and sought employment at the feed mill, but when talking to HR he realized the maintenance tech position might be a good fit for him. There is one other female in the class of eight, Ana Gaston of Fayetteville, who is also a single mom at 26. Gaston said she was a landscaper before signing on with Cargill.

“I have always been interested in electrical and saw this as a great opportunity to grow my skills … in time I want to be a supervisor and work my up through the company,” Gaston said.

Jesus Serrano, 28, has spent the past nine years working as a plumber’s apprentice, but said he was looking for a job with a company that could offer advancement. He was partnering with Gaston to learn the basics of mechanical drives.

Freking said the recruits work in pairs to go over the computer-aided lesson from their workbooks. Once they get the basic understanding of the concept, they move to a hands-on table lesson to test their knowledge. He said in this phase of the course the computer throws random problems at the students, so they must think “on their feet” to complete the task successfully. Once that is done, the computer comes up with another scenario for the students to investigate and solve.

Freking said NTI also has a diploma program which can turn out about 20 new maintenance tech entry level workers each semester. But the new boot camp format seems to be what industry is looking for. Freking said he has trained workers from Texas, North Carolina and South Carolina recently who were sent to NTI by their employers for the month-long boot camp.

“We give them the basics and send them back home for the companies to put to work in entry level roles,” Freking said. “We use four instructors in this boot camp training format which also includes soft skills and leadership skills training in the evening. We have found that companies want the leadership training nearly as much as the solid mechanical skills. Maybe that’s because people who can keep a plant running has a pretty good shot at being a plant manager someday if that’s an area they are interested in.”

Acosta told Talk Business & Politics the leadership training is important as are good communication skills for everyone in their organization because it allows for more advancement and promotions and is also a benefit for the overall company.

Harvey applauded NTI and Cargill for the effort to train more young people in the field of industry maintenance technicians. He said there is not a short-term solution to a big gap, but companies willing to invest in training their own maintenance crews is a pretty good start.