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Investing in employee education


School is in session at Abbott Point of Care in Ottawa, Ont. One hundred and forty of the manufacturer’s employees started an Instrumentation and Control Technician apprenticeship program in September — a program aimed at helping employees gain the skills they need to adapt to a changing manufacturing industry, and support the investments in automation and advanced technology that the company has made throughout the plant in recent years.
The Instrumentation and Control Technician apprenticeship program, developed in partnership with Algonquin College and the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, allows course work to be completed on-site during working hours, and includes comprehensive training and mentoring to help employees every step of the way. And the employees don’t pay a cent. Abbott Point of Care foots the bill, with some support from government funding.

This isn’t the first time the company, which manufactures cartridges for an advanced, handheld, diagnostic tool for rapid blood analysis, has provided valuable training to make sure its employees have an upgraded skillset. The company has a long history of investing in its employees, and has won numerous awards for being a top employer.

It all started when the company began experiencing double-digit growth year after year, and replaced many of its manual processes with automation and advanced technology to support that growth. But as the company introduced technologies like robots and pick-and-place machines, it also needed to educate its workforce so that employees had the training and skills to support the investments the company was making, and could grow with the organization as well.

In 2007, the company launched a Microelectronics Manufacturer apprenticeship program so that employees could learn to better operate and monitor the high-tech automated equipment that the company had invested in, while receiving the necessary skills to improve processes and automation. With a total of 304 class hours over the course of three years, the program has allowed close to 400 staff members to upgrade their education and gain enhanced skills in communication, science and mathematics, teamwork, critical thinking and problem solving.

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“We were going into automation. We were expanding. We wanted to make sure that we had the talent we needed to continue to grow the business,” says Sean Tomalty, plant director at Abbott Point of Care. “We saw this as the way to improve our uptime, improve our troubleshooting skills and get a standard across the facility that would facilitate continuous improvement.”

The new apprenticeship program trains employees to become Instrumentation and Control technicians. One hundred and forty of the facility’s more than 850 employees are enrolled in the program, which features a customized curriculum, including 15 courses over three years — eight hours a week of class time and on-the-job training — plus a fourth year to finalize on-the-job training requirements. That’s a total of 720 hours over four years. And since this program is very technical, employees will also have to dedicate time each week outside of work to complete assignments and study for tests.   

“It’s a requirement for your provincial apprenticeship certification that you demonstrate skills learned in an on-the-job fashion,” says Cathy Lewis, Abbott Point of Care’s business excellence manager in charge of the apprenticeship program. “And we’ll work with them over the three years and then extend their learning through the fourth year to ensure that they’ve had an opportunity to demonstrate all of those skills.”

The Instrumentation and Control Technician apprenticeship program has the added advantage of being “Red Seal” certified, which allows qualified tradespeople to practise their trade anywhere in Canada.

“Should they choose, there is a Red Seal exam that we will support and they can take a cumulative one more step and get Red Seal certified,” explains Lewis.

“So these folks, when they finish the program, will be eligible to write that interprovincial exam,” says Christopher Janzen, dean of the Faculty of Technology and Trades at Algonquin College. “With their certificate of qualification, they’ll be able to go anywhere in Canada and work. And Abbott is aware of that, and aware that they could lose some of their highly trained people by doing this sort of a program. But at the same time, this is the skillforce that they need, and they would much rather develop from within so that the culture and climate and the expectation of work ethic is instilled already in their employees…I wish more companies would do it.”

For Abbott, this is the best way to make sure they have employees with the right skillset.

“I don’t know how else we would be able to train this many people at this scale,” says Lewis. “It’s quite ambitious, and we juggle production with academic goals. The model with the Ministry of Training and Colleges and Universities and Algonquin College and us has worked very, very, very well. We couldn’t do what we’re doing without them. And we’re providing exceptional programming for our employees.”

Tomalty says that, while employers investing in their staff may not be unique, what makes their program stand out is that they’ve provided the infrastructure to go to college on-site, which makes it a lot easier and a lot more convenient for employees.

Convenience is key, says Lewis.

“In a manufacturing environment, our guys work shiftwork — 12 hours on, 12 hours off, nights, days. So for some of them, on a rotating shift, it would be impossible for them to attend a college course on a regular basis if it wasn’t at work, on work time,” she says.

George Ferguson, an incoming quality control inspector at the Ottawa plant, is a graduate of the Microelectronics Manufacturer program, and is currently enrolled in the Instrumentation and Control Technician apprenticeship program.

“This is an opportunity for me to get that education and further my career,” says Ferguson, who has aspirations of becoming an equipment technician at the plant.

“It’s great. It’s something I can actually brag about to other friends who work for other companies. How many companies will pay for an education? I love it,” he says.

But for Abbott, investing in employees and providing on-the-job training is how they respond to a changing economy and a rapidly growing sector. And it’s something they will continue to do if they see the need, says Tomalty.

“Abbott’s apprenticeship program is designed to better equip employees to do their advanced manufacturing jobs safely and effectively, while fostering innovation, opportunities for advancement, and a culture of learning,” he says. “We continue to look for unique ways to create a development-focused working environment.”

Lewis describes their approach to employee education as “win-win.”

“We have a co-ordinated, highly effective, innovative workforce development program, and our people get to go to college. So it’s just awesome.”

 

Side bar

Interested in offering employee training? Where do you start?

Abbott Point of Care’s Cathy Lewis has this advice: “When considering an apprenticeship program, the first step would be to review and prioritize development needs that support operational and strategic priorities of the business now and into the future. Alignment with a training delivery agent, such as a local college, as well as the relevant provincial ministry of education, is required in Ontario to implement apprenticeship programming. This three-way partnership requires creative collaboration among private, public and educational institutions.

“The next step,” Lewis says, “would be to evaluate options for delivery that balance business needs and classroom time. Abbott chose to offer classes on work time, which best supports our 24-hour shift operation and balances the personal obligations and work responsibilities of our apprentices. Other proactive considerations to facilitate long-term success include assessing pre-apprenticeship learning needs, incorporating adult learning best practices, and working with community partners to ensure that academic supports are in place for students to respond to individual learning needs throughout the journey.

“Lastly,” she adds, “it is helpful to look at other programs and how they operate in other provinces. For example, Alberta is a great reference in terms of its leadership in apprenticeship programs.”