Restoring a workforce

Wisconsin-based Super Steel launches a training program to bring in skilled workers and support the local economy


SuperSteel Group PhotoIt has been said “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” One might add: “Teach a man to weld and he will eat steak.”

It was this mantra that inspired Milwaukee contract-manufacturer Super Steel LLC and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin (HCCW) to create a 26-week program to engage and create the talent needed to strengthen Milwaukee’s workforce. The program, titled the “Advanced Manufacturing Partnership & Training Initiative” or AMPTI, resulted in an employer-approved education and training program to benefit low-to-moderate income workers.

“We are very enthusiastic about our partnership with the HCCW,” says Dirk Smith, Super Steel’s president and CEO. “We believe training programs such as this one can address, in a meaningful way, many issues that we see within our workforce while at the same time place new employees on the path toward success. Our workforce is about 50 percent welders, so we are committed to building and developing the careers of those in this industry.”

Dirk Smith began his career as a welder and over the years rose to find himself in upper management positions, including having co-owned his own company. Smith serves as a great example of how good character and good foundational knowledge allow a person to achieve his or her goals more readily. So by combining an excellent welding training program, effective professional mentoring and an opportunity for a well-paying career, Super Steel and the HCCW aim to improve local residents’ lives – as well as strengthen Wisconsin’s economy.

Skills shortages

In July 2015, Business Insider reported that the welding industry will face a shortage of about 400,000 operators by 2024, according to the American Welding Society. Also according to the American Welding Cohort 3 at MATC 2Society, the U.S. welding industry is facing a big labor shortage due to retiring welders and the lack of incoming skilled workers. The situation is happening around the nation, and Wisconsin has not been impervious to it.

Some Wisconsin businesses, in fact, have experienced high turnover of new employees as well as a loss of know-how due to ongoing retirements of key workers. And some have resorted to recruiting talent from other local manufacturing companies. This provides companies with solutions to immediate staffing problems, but does not help the long term – cultivating Wisconsin’s talent pool to provide more skilled and competitive workers.

If skilled worker shortages in Wisconsin are not pro-actively addressed, as many as 31,000 manufacturing jobs could go unfilled by 2021. It is these types of shortages in the manufacturing community that could result in the possible loss of tax revenues, decreased business revenues for manufacturers and lower incomes for Wisconsin citizens.

Cohort 3 at Super Steel
In Super Steel classrooms, training includes safety, blueprint reading, math skills, weld techniques, quality, shop orders, continuous improvement and what it means to thrive within a “culture of winners.”

Therefore, skilled workers and higher employment-retention rates are being developed to assist Wisconsin firms earn and perform on market opportunities, like the one that’s happening at Super Steel. Southeastern Wisconsin isn’t ready to risk its well-earned reputation as a skilled region for complex fabrications, and Super Steel and the HCCW’s program is one example of how the region is stepping up to help remedy the situation of unfilled jobs and the lack of skilled workers.

When properly trained in the field of welding, the opportunities are vast. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median pay for an entry-level worker in 2012 was nearly $36,000 per year without overtime or other incentive pay. Highly skilled welders can earn more than $100,000 per year with overtime.

Strides in skills development

Cohort graduation
Program graduates rise to the top from an initial field of 250 candidates. By December 2016, the goal is to create a total of 50 high-paying welding  jobs.

With the help of a State of Wisconsin “Fast Forward” grant, the Super Steel-customized worker training program was developed in conjunction with the HCCW and Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC.) Super Steel’s certified welding instructors tailored the training to its specific welding requirements, which were then highlighted and taught by MATC’s instructors.

To help make strides with Wisconsin’s labor force, the program focuses on three key components of employment success. It begins with outreach and recruitment, which can include pre-screens and assessments of potential trainees.

It continues with the HCCW’s “Essential Life Skills,” which imparts basic skills needed to be successful in the workplace, including communication, conflict resolution, financial responsibility, relationship building and time management. Participants are paid for this portion of the program and directly following, participants receive customized, accredited and transferrable training from MATC at no cost to themselves.

Luis Jimenez
Program-participant and new employee at Super Steel, Luis Jimenez, demonstrates new skills gained over the 26-week course.

Luis Jimenez 2The third component of the program is essentially its culmination at which point Super Steel hires participants and enrolls them into its Super Steel University, which consists of three weeks of on-site classroom training, applying the basic skills covered by MATC to real-world in-plant situations. Participants then continue with nine weeks of on-the-job, mentored training.

Super Steel’s classroom training includes safety, blueprint reading, math skills, weld techniques, quality, shop orders, continuous improvement and what it means to thrive within a “culture of winners.” The on-the-job training also includes teaming participants with a mentor to develop and reinforce classroom skills.

Throughout the program, participants receive an evaluation after each round of skills training before moving on to the next level. And once they are brought on board, new employees receive formal check-ins after 30, 60 and 90 days. Finally, they receive ongoing reviews focusing on safety, quality, productivity and skills advancement to keep them learning, improving and thriving on the job.

New employees are full-time and receive full benefits, including health, vision, dental, 401K and educational assistance. These new hires are also given opportunities for advancement within the organization.

Michael Carey
Michael Carey, a new hire at Super Steel, says “I gained a wealth of knowledge and am grateful to be given an opportunity in a field that is growing and has such a demand for skilled workers.”

Throughout the 26-week program, trainees, like AMPTI-participant and new employee at Super Steel, Luis Jimenez, are able to show their dedication by committing themselves to the thorough, full-time program. “The program helps you be a better person, more professional and prepares you for your career,” Jimenez says. “The program is truly a stepping stone into learning the job.”

Jimenez should take pride in completing the course. Graduates rose to the top from an initial field of 250 candidates down to 47 individuals attending all orientation sessions to 26 trainees accepted into program support to 23 accepted into essential life skills to 17 accepted into technical training who eventually graduated in September of 2015. Of the final 17, Super Steel currently employs six with the remaining 11 participants receiving support to land positions at other companies based in Wisconsin.

“Enjoying the experience, I gained a wealth of knowledge and am grateful to be given an opportunity in a field that is growing and has such a demand for skilled workers,” says Michael Carey, another newly-hired Super Steel employee.

Proud to participate

For program participants, Super Steel is a great place to cut their teeth in the industry as well as a great place to spend an entire career. The company is a $60 million, ISO 9001:2008- and EN 15085-certified firm specializing in large, complex fabrications and electro-mechanical assemblies.

The company’s services include laser cutting, plasma/oxy-fuel cutting, up to 600-ton press brake operations, machining, turret punching, AWS-certified welding (manual and robotic), sand/steel blasting and painting (e-coat, liquid and powder). The laundry list of services also includes complex electrical, mechanical and hydraulic assemblies. These processes are employed to build whole goods to the company’s client specifications with materials ranging from 18 gauge to 12 in. thick.

The 92-year-old Super Steel has had strong growth since being re-purchased by the Luber family in 2010. Super Steel excels in providing complex fabrications and weldments requiring high levels of skill. The welders who work there are continually growing and learning, as they are faced with challenging and exciting projects each and every day.

Super Steel’s newest recruits are equally grateful to the partnership organizations that helped Super Steel develop the program, like the HCCW. Established in 1972, the HCCW is a 501(c) organization that advances economic growth and prosperity opportunities for Wisconsin’s Hispanic population, low-to-moderate constituents and the community at-large. The HCCW drives legislative and regulatory public policy success at federal, state and local levels.

The larger “Advanced Manufacturing Partnership” has also included the State of Wisconsin’s Governor’s office, U.S. Department of Labor Workforce Development Boards, the American Welding Society and other Wisconsin companies, such as the Ariens Co., Miller Electric Mfg. Co., Monarch Corp., Pierce Mfg. Inc. and Schuette Metals.

Super Steel is a $60 million, ISO 9001:2008- and EN 15085-certified firm specializing in large, complex fabrications and electro-mechanical assemblies. Its broad range of services take place in its 450,000-sq.-ft. facility.

Super Steel’s success, combined with its projected growth through 2017, spurred its involvement with the HCCW and MATC to create additional skilled employees who will be instrumental in achieving projected goals. Super Steel’s mentorship program is part of its “culture of winners” mindset, which urges employees to define requirements, develop plans and solutions to meet the requirements, and to continually improve one’s self, both professionally and personally. In this scenario, everyone wins.

Super Steel has also been an ongoing participant in the national “Manufacturing Day,” which promotes manufacturing jobs each year. Manufacturers open their doors to educate the public about the industry and the well-paying jobs available.

At this year’s Oct. 2 Manufacturing Day, Jorge Franco, chair, president and CEO of the HCCW, presented its Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Workforce Innovation Award to Smith, Super Steel’s president, in recognition of the company’s efforts to strengthen Wisconsin’s manufacturing competitiveness. Super Steel’s Manufacturing Day included 130 local homeschooled and public school students who toured the company’s 450,000-sq.-ft. facility to learn more about potential careers in the manufacturing industry. Around the nation, hosting companies held more than 2,000 events to promote manufacturing as a career path for students.

For the nation and Wisconsin as well, successful strides are being made to cultivate skilled workers in the manufacturing industry. For Super Steel and Wisconsin, the AMPTI has been a successful integration of a government, advocacy group and private corporate partnership, which resulted in improving the lives of participants.

The upcoming three sessions as well as other iterations of this project should result in a stronger, more-competitive Wisconsin going forward. The goal is to create 50 high-paying welding jobs via four structured training sessions by December 2016.

Super Steel LLC

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