Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Ready, AIME, train: A new program funds training initiatives in Ontario

February 25, 2009
By Mary Del

It is no secret that Canadian manufacturers are facing major human resources challenges – an aging workforce, a reduced ability to attract younger workers and a need to keep up with changing skill requirements. Indeed, it is a challenging time for manufacturers in North America.

The Conference Board of Canada recently released a report, Key Economic and Labour Force Issues Facing Canada’s Manufacturing Sector, which recommends that manufacturers must improve on the current skills of their two million workers by tapping into education and training programs.

The economic analysis as part of the report, which was released last summer, found that the manufacturing sector’s share of gross domestic product, which grew strongly in the 1990s, slipped from 18.4 percent in 2000 to 15.2 percent in 2007. Since the beginning of the decade, overall growth in the manufacturing sector has stalled, and about 300,000 manufacturing jobs have disappeared.

“At present, the manufacturing sector needs to do more to take full advantage of its current workforce through training and learning programs, and do more to successfully recruit younger workers,” says Douglas Watt, associate director, organizational effectiveness and learning, Conference Board of Canada. “Human resources are the most important piece of any organization. Without the right skills, organizations face an uphill battle…It’s really important that businesses know what is out there, what is available through their industry training applications, to tap into government programs or community programs that help improve training.”


Enter the AIME (Achieving Innovation and Manufacturing Excellence) Initiative, a partnership between the Ontario government and the Yves Landry Foundation (YLF), an organization established to advance technological education and skills training to resolve the skilled labour shortages facing Canadian industries. The AIME program was launched last October when the Ontario government announced that, in partnership with the YLF, it would provide $25 million to support training that will make manufacturers in the province more competitive and innovative.

It was clear that there was a need to improve skill sets and upscale current workers “to make companies more innovative, progressive and competitive in the challenging economy that we’re in right now,” says Karyn Brearley, executive director of the YLF. “One of the things that certainly happens in an environment where there is financial challenges or competitive challenges, is…everybody tightens their belts. The first thing that gets cut within an institution is the training budget…We recognize the value of continuous training inside of an institution, but [we] also recognize that when a company is faced with challenges, or the tightening of the belt process, that that’s the first thing that goes, and that’s really not the thing that should be going, because in order to keep moving ahead and staying innovative and staying competitive, you have to keep investing in your staff and your employees.”

Watch our Q&A with the Yves Landry Foundation’s Karyn Brearley.

Ontario manufacturers are now eligible to receive a maximum of $50,000 each to foster training that will lead to advancements in innovation.

The funding is open to all Ontario manufacturers that meet the following criteria: between 15 and 1,500 employees; in business in Ontario for at least three years or can demonstrate a solid financial footing; must have a manufacturing facility located in Ontario; and must manufacture a specific product for sale in Ontario or elsewhere. In addition, the company must develop a plan to implement training that will support and develop highly skilled personnel in any area that leads to innovation, or support the adoption of new technologies, new processes or procedures, or any change within the company to support innovation.

The initiative was launched on October 1, 2008. The application deadline is September 30, 2009, although companies approved for funding will have until March 31, 2010 to complete their training program.

“Engagement was fast and furious,” says Brearley. “When we made that public announcement, we immediately received inquiries, questions and excitement. I can’t resonate enough how excited companies are to be eligible for this kind of initiative because of its uniqueness. As soon as we made that announcement, the telephone started ringing and the applications started flowing in.”

Just over two months after the initiative was announced, the Foundation had already approved 20 companies for funding, closing in on about $2 million of the allocated $25 million.

“These companies are starved for this kind of thing, and they are so anxious and so excited about this opportunity,” says Brearley. “It’s obvious there’s a need out there because the appetite is alive and well.”

Brearley explains that they’re hearing from companies all across the province, not just in one particular area or region, and across many different manufacturing sectors. “We are really seeing a diverse manufacturing group emerge. The uptake has been phenomenal from every manufacturing flavour. And that’s been really rewarding. I mean that is really what we wanted the program to do and the results are accurate.”

The application process
Brearley explains that applying for the funding is meant to be a simple process. The preliminary application includes conceptual information, is usually about four pages long, and most companies can write it in 10 to 15 minutes, she says. When they apply for the funding, companies must describe what it is that they want to do; how it is embedded in innovation; how it’s going to improve the company; approximately how many people could be involved in the training initiative; who is going to deliver the training; and how they will know when they’re successful.

“If the concept that they’ve presented and the rough costs that they’ve presented seem realistic and reasonable, we get back to them very quickly and say, ‘Go ahead and start putting your full application together with the supporting documentation,'” says Brearley.

Once the full application is complete, the YLF presents the documents to its expert panel of judges – three industry representatives and two educators (one from the college system and one from the university system) – who then evaluate the applications.

“What they’re evaluating is how it fits with the company’s agenda [and] is it realistic, is it doable, is it achievable,” explains Brearley. “We are using them as a credibility and reality check to ensure that what the company is saying is doable and realistic, the timeline that the company has laid out is doable and realistic, [and] the training that they’ve identified matches with the goal that the company has set out to embark on.”

Brearley says they are already seeing some trends emerge in the early applications. “We’re certainly seeing two areas emerge as the areas that seem to be of keen interest to our clientele; one of which is equipment…Many of the companies have recently purchased a new piece of equipment and now they recognize that they need the training to go along with it.”

The second area, says Brearley, is process training. “They recognized areas within their process…where improvements are necessary. They’ve drilled down again to say, ‘Okay, here’s the area that needs to be addressed, here’s the training that we’ve sourced out that can help us fix this particular process issue,’ and then they come back and ask us to help support that particular training initiative.”

The funding will cover 100 percent of direct costs (e.g. the trainer’s salary, the curriculum, manuals, consumables or training aids) and 50 percent of indirect costs (e.g. the wages of an employee who is missing work to attend training sessions).

And the funding goes to…
Hy-Grade Precast Concrete, a St. Catharines, Ont.-based manufacturer of precast concrete stairs and landings for multi-story buildings, precast modular buildings, retaining wall systems, underground vaults and MTO-approved highway safety barriers, was the first company in Ontario to be approved for the AIME funding.

With the help of Absolute Change Management, a training and consulting company also based in St. Catharines, Ont., the company was able to identify areas for improvement and innovation at their manufacturing facility.

“They’re implementing a new concrete batch mixer technology, and that innovation will increase the plant’s capacity, lower production costs, improve process control and quality, and allow for new market development,” explains Dave Peters, president of Absolute Change Management. “We helped them to develop a program that we believe will deliver improvements in their employee skills, problem solving, solution creation and process flow to really create a whole new design for the manufacturing process for this new [technology].”

Hy-Grade was approved for the full $50,000, and the funding will go towards training to help implement the new technology in a planned, structured, cohesive manner. After 12 weeks of planning and training, the company expects to be able to implement the new equipment.

“We’ve wanted to be involved in training in terms of helping us become more efficient and implement some of the newer manufacturing techniques,” says Dominic Girotti, president of Hy-Grade Precast Concrete, “but we’ve never been able to justify spending the money that it would take or find a program that wouldn’t be disruptive to our operation…And when the Yves Landry Foundation came along, it was the perfect win-win where we could get our people involved in the training and the good portion of the costs would be borne by the monies awarded by Yves Landry.”

The AIME initiative was designed with companies like Hy-Grade in mind; companies that recognize the value of human resources. In fact, Girotti is a huge believer in developing employee skills. There is a reason that the family-owned company has been in business for 60 years. Its mantra is that the company’s success is built on having the best trained, most highly skilled workforce in the precast industry.

“We started as a small company, and as you grow, you quickly realize that your growth is limited if you want to be involved in all of the decisions and everything that happens,” explains Girotti. “But if you develop people under you and then give them the authority to make decisions and give them training to be able to make good decisions, a company can continue to grow. And I think that’s crucial to being successful.”

Can manufacturers in other provinces look forward to a similar program being launched in their area? Brearley says they’re taking it one step at a time.

“Our Foundation, as well as our supporters, is very excited about this opportunity in the province of Ontario. We would love, at some point in the future, to start to engage other provinces if the climate exists…However, we don’t want to bite off more than we can chew at this point. This is a very, very intensive program that we’re embarking on and we want to ensure that we have tremendous success with it before we go onto another stage.”

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