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Eastlake’s Suburban MFG. works on workforce development through apprenticeship programs

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By Kristi Garabrandt, The News-Herald

POSTED: 02/07/18, 6:36 PM EST | UPDATED: 3 DAYS AGO

Nate Hunter, Chardon High School graduate and Suburban MFG. fourth year apprentice, performs one of the company’s hottest and most demanding jobs with minimal supervision. Hunter is expected to graduate from the program in May.Kristi Garabrandt — The News-Herald

For the past nine years Suburban MFG. in Eastlake has been an active participator in an on-site apprentice program.

The company previously participated in the program for many years putting two students a year through it to earn journeyman certificates from the state, but took a short break before resuming it.

“We try to find students from area high schools — we participate in the robobot programs, we advertise for the kids and we offer capstone programs here,” said Roxanne Putnam of Suburban MFG. “That is how we get the kids to come and actually apply for the apprentice program.”

According to Putnam, the apprenticeship is a four-year program with the participants having that amount of time of on-the-job training at Suburban. They earn regular wages while working days and then in the evening the company pays for them to attend Lakeland Community College. Over the course of the apprenticeship the students get 8,000 hours of training and four years of college with a course selection that the company has specified for them.

“It’s really a big commitment from the young people as well as from the company,” Putnam said. “We put a lot of time and resources into the program.”

Nate Hunter, a 23-year-old Chardon High School graduate, is in his fourth year as an apprentice and graduates in May. He said that apprenticeship programs over all are great but that Suburban’s is especially good.

“You get on-the-job training pretty much every day. You come in to work your eight hours and that’s all you do. You are always working and always training, “ he said. “Our company pays for our education as long as you do good in the classes. It’s a win-win situation, you get an education and a career and they get a good employee.”

Bob Phillips, the on-site director of education and training, is a 35-year machinist and one of the original founders of the company. Phillips works every day with the apprentices, training them on different things. They start with manual machines and how to grind tools and work their way up to the company’s latest machines and computer programming, according to Phillips.

“I look at them as no matter how much experience they have, they don’t know anything and we start off with the simple things like grinding drills and sticking them in a manual machine to see how they work,” he said. “We take it real slow and show them how to hold parts for safety reasons and go over all the safety aspects.”

The students will spend about a year and a half learning how to program the machines manually. They then go into computer programming, where they type out a program and take it into the shop and try it out, Phillips said.

“It’s hands-on experience year by year. They keep getting better,” he said.

The manufacturing facility has an on-site training center where students get classroom, computer training to learn the specialized software used in the industry and hands-on experience.

After completing the apprenticeships the students are required to stay on at Suburban for a minimum of two years or they will be required to pay back the tuition fees, according to Putnam.

“Our customers, it’s one of the first areas that they want to ask us about when they are researching our capabilities,” said Aaron Thayer, sales and marketing manager for Suburban. “They want to know not just what our sales strategy is but they really want to know what our workforce development strategy is, because, it’s important to them that if we are going to have a long-term relationship that we are not relying on a certain segment of... our team now that is going to be retiring.”

Thayer acknowledges that Suburban is not the only company doing the apprentice programs but he believes they are doing it pretty well.

“There are companies like us that are taking young people who want to have a long career in manufacturing and we are bringing them into the fold early on,” Thayer said. “They are getting this opportunity to learn from that generation that has put the time in and of course its a process of building a team mentality.”

Thayer believes the veteran employees are very comfortable and are aware of the value in sharing their knowledge with the apprentices and younger employees.

He also believes that being employee-owned allows the process to be more organic because the older employees have been there for a while and are looking at retiring in the next five to 10 years. The veteran employees know the employee ownership they have is contingent on the company continuing to do well after they retire.

“It’s not really all that altruistic,” Thayer said. “It’s a great process that has a lot of win-win scenarios in it.”

The company also offers a machine maintenance program, Putnam said.

Suburban is considering adding other training options into its workforce development program.

“We haven’t submitted any official paperwork to the state yet to add on any computer programming or office type work yet, but, like Aaron (Thayer) said it’s important that we stay current in this industry,” Putnam said. “We see things changing all the time. All these young people who are so incredibly talented with technology have so much to offer that we would be thrilled with the thought of bringing one of them in to help with that type of stuff.”

Editor’s note: This story was edited at 1:20 p.m. Feb. 8, 2017, to correct the spelling of Kevin Vlacg’s name.

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