One on one with MIT’s Larry Wiech­ern

DEMM Engineering & Manufacturing - - 3D TECHNOLOGY -

Larry Wiech­ern man­ages the Main­te­nance and Re­li­a­bil­ity Cen­tre at the Manukau In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and is its Mod­ern Ap­pren­tice­ship co-or­di­na­tor. He talks to Steve Hart about ap­pren­tices and how em­ploy­ers can build a skilled work­force.

From your ex­pe­ri­ence what are the big­gest hur­dles faced by to­day’s ap­pren­tices?

Find­ing the right em­ployer will­ing to take them on. Also many of the young as­pir­ing people leav­ing school have no idea what they want to do.

They have no idea what trade, or path­way into that trade they should take. For ex­am­ple, in the me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing trade there are five stands avail­able from CNC, gen­eral en­gi­neer­ing, fit­ting, tool­mak­ing and main­te­nance. While the ti­tles seem clear enough to us, for a young per­son leav­ing school, they re­ally have no idea what these trades in­volve.

When tech­ni­cal classes were re­moved from intermediate schools, (i.e. wood­work, en­gi­neer­ing, sewing and cook­ing) young people lost their role mod­els, and the taste and feel of what these trades could of­fer to their fu­tures. Then, young people went on to sec­ondary school with a pretty good idea of the di­rec­tion they wished to take, and they were able to se­lect suit­able sub­jects to achieve their goals.

There are var­i­ous or­gan­i­sa­tions that are do­ing a fan­tas­tic job at sup­ply­ing a good solid foun­da­tion for those who are still at school and think­ing of a ca­reer in en­gi­neer­ing. John Ko­toisuva’s C-Me Men­tor­ing, (Trades at School), and the Ma­nurewa Schools Academy pro­gramme are two of these or­gan­i­sa­tions.

Com­pe­tenz has a very good web­site that will give ex­cel­lent in­for­ma­tion to those who need as­sis­tance and di­rec­tion: http://www.com­pe­tenz.org.nz.

Are ap­pren­tices re­ceiv­ing enough sup­port from their em­ploy­ers?

Find­ing em­ploy­ment with a com­pany that has enough skilled trades­peo­ple to im­part the knowl­edge re­quired for these young ap­pren­tices to learn can some­times be a prob­lem.

Many of the com­pa­nies I deal with do have these skilled staff, but I am hear­ing that this is not al­ways the case in some other in­dus­tries.

Com­pe­tenz and mod­ern ap­pren­tice­ship co-or­di­na­tors are now in a po­si­tion to also sup­port both the ap­pren­tice and the em­ployer, so they both un­der­stand their obli­ga­tions dur­ing the train­ing of the ap­pren­tice.

It is a con­cern to me that in the past, block cour­ses were nine weeks a year – this has now been re­duced to two to three weeks. While this may seem like a big mon­e­tary sav­ing for the em­ployer, it comes at a cost. It is ap­par­ent to me that the cost is a huge gap in ba­sic train­ing.

The young trades­peo­ple who come through our doors need more ba­sic train­ing but are on a very tight sched­ule to achieve the re­quired set of unit stan­dards.

Over­all, is the ap­pren­tice scheme meet­ing the needs of ap­pren­tices?

Well I think if you spoke to the older trades­peo­ple, you would not be sur­prised to learn that we had a fan­tas­tic ap­pren­tice­ship sys­tem in the past that was sec­ond to none. It was recog­nised in­ter­na­tion­ally, and de­liv­ered young people to com­pa­nies work-ready. Then the cost ac­coun­tants got in­volved and changed the whole con­cept of trade train­ing in New Zealand.

The sad thing is, I now have third year ap­pren­tices that can’t work out the area of a cir­cle, have no idea how to cal­cu­late what speed to run a ma­chine, can­not trans­pose sim­ple equa­tions, and have trou­ble grind­ing a drill and un­der­stand­ing the im­por­tance of a clear­ance an­gle. This is not true of all cases, but a large per­cent­age would fall into this cat­e­gory.

When you fast track train­ing you can end up with that re­sult. Learn­ing is of­ten a lit­tle repet­i­tive – like hit­ting a nail, it doesn’t go in af­ter one hit. But as the gaps are iden­ti­fied, we then work on re­in­forc­ing their im­por­tance.

Hope­fully we still have enough ex­pe­ri­enced en­gi­neers within com­pa­nies to im­part all the nec­es­sary skills to give them a solid foot­ing for their fu­ture.

What will be the big­gest is­sues faced by to­day’s ap­pren­tices when they qual­ify?

Fi­nance is tight so it will be up to the young trades­peo­ple to source suit­able train­ing that is go­ing to keep them up with cur­rent trends within their cho­sen trade. They also need the con­fi­dence to ap­proach their em­ployer for the sup­port they re­quire. These ex­tra skills will en­sure them a pos­i­tive fu­ture.

With re­gard on­go­ing train­ing for es­tab­lished pro­fes­sion­als, are com­pa­nies keep­ing their staff up to speed with new tech­niques and new ways of work­ing?

Well in my opin­ion, at­ti­tude is quite crit­i­cal. Em­ploy­ers take a huge risk set­ting up their busi­ness and they re­alise (the pro­gres­sive ones that is) that they are only as strong as the staff they em­ploy. So I be­lieve com­pa­nies are well aware that if they want to stay com­pet­i­tive, they need a pos­i­tive, well-ed­u­cated work­force.

In life there are al­ways go­ing to be those people who are happy to stay where they are. This just pro­vides op­por­tu­ni­ties for those ones who want to push the bound­aries. Mov­ing out of your com­fort zone can be a chal­lenge, but that’s where you grow as a per­son and cre­ate the skills our in­dus­try needs.

What can young people do to help them­selves?

For some­one who’s think­ing of be­com­ing an en­gi­neer, they could do no bet­ter than to join a pre-ap­pren­tice train­ing scheme.

The topics pro­vided give the young

trainee an op­por­tu­nity to bet­ter un­der­stand all as­pects of the trade. It gives them an op­por­tu­nity to nail home all the ba­sics of the trade.

Com­pe­tenz can also pro­vide job op­por­tu­ni­ties to those who ap­ply them­selves to the course. Through their on­go­ing vis­its to MIT they can see who is go­ing to make a good em­ployee, hav­ing achieved the re­quired unit stan­dards and learnt those ba­sic con­cepts such as, mea­sure twice cut once, turn­ing up on time, and good at­ten­dance.

Em­ploy­ees can con­tact us di­rectly should they re­quire a per­son with the right in­ter­est, skill and at­ti­tude.

People such as main­te­nance evan­ge­list Joel Leonard say firms are find­ing it hard to hire main­te­nance en­gi­neers. Is it a for­got­ten part of the trade?

It is an area that should be very ex­cit­ing, as it cov­ers so many in­ter­est­ing as­pects of en­gi­neer­ing. I think the se­lec­tion of the cor­rect unit stan­dard topics and level of sub­ject mat­ter could do with a big re­vamp. Again, com­pa­nies are un­der a great deal of pres­sure to keep the plant op­er­at­ing, so the end re­sult is that in­depth train­ing is sac­ri­ficed.

You only need to look at the num­ber of bear­ing fail­ures within our in­dus­try to re­alise there is a tremen­dous lack of train­ing be­ing cov­ered on this topic alone, with­out even look­ing at the other key ar­eas such as, lubri­ca­tion, align­ment, seal­ing and the ever grow­ing threat of coun­ter­feit prod­ucts af­fect­ing our man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor.

This trade is sup­ported by ex­cit­ing tech­nol­ogy such as:

Vi­bra­tion anal­y­sis (un­der­stand­ing the lan­guage and health of the ma­chine).

Oil anal­y­sis (what com­po­nents are wear­ing out and the con­di­tion of pro­tec­tive seals).

In­frared (non-in­va­sive in­spec­tion of elec­tri­cal and me­chan­i­cal com­po­nents).

Ul­tra­son­ics (leak de­tec­tion, elec­tri­cal in­spec­tion and thick­ness mea­sure­ment).

Why wouldn’t you want to be­come in­volved with this part of our in­dus­try?

I be­lieve it comes back to poor mar­ket­ing and the lack of role mod­els for those think­ing about this path­way.

We have some fan­tas­tic role mod­els who we could tap into to in­spire young people think­ing of mov­ing into a trade, but we are not tap­ping into that wealth of talent that could be avail­able if man­aged in the cor­rect man­ner.

Larry Wiech­ern, MIT’s Mod­ern Ap­pren­tice­ship co­or­di­na­tor.

Photo / Steve Hart

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