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National Apprenticeship Week 2021: Training Manufacturing’s Next Generation of Skilled Talent: Dixon Valve

To commemorate this year’s National Apprenticeship Week (NAW), we are highlighting how Registered Apprenticeship provides a critical talent pipeline that can help address some of our nation’s pressing workforce challenges. From our conversations with manufacturers across Maryland, we know hiring and maintaining a qualified workforce continues to be one of the greatest concerns for our industry. As more experienced workers reach retirement age, more local companies are tasked with having to figure out how to replace this invaluable knowledge and skill within their operations.

In honor of NAW, we visited with three Maryland companies who are turning to Registered Apprenticeship as the long-term solution to this challenge. Earlier this week we highlighted Berry Global and Fabricated Extrusion Company. Next, we learn more about Dixon Valve.

DIXON VALVE

Dixon Valve is a 105-year-old manufacturer and supplier of hose couplings, valves, dry disconnects, swivels, and other fluid transfer and control products. The company employs nearly 1,500 people worldwide, including roughly 350 people at its headquarters in Chestertown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Dixon has believed in the value of apprenticeship for years, and up until 2016 offered its own traditional program. But after learning of the benefits of competency-based programs from MD MEP, the company overhauled not just its apprenticeship program, but ultimately its entire approach to standardizing its work processes and training new employees.

“One of the biggest things MD MEP did was expose us to the value of assessment,” says Eric Lemon, Manufacturing Training Manager. “With competency-based programs, we gained a battery of normed and validated tests that not only help us determine quickly if an employee is a good candidate for an apprenticeship, but also verifies they are gaining the skills we need at each level of the program. They are literally proving their competency on the floor, and it’s being verified and signed off on by someone who is standing right there watching them do it. I’m a huge advocate for competency-based apprenticeship for this type of profession because employers want to know the person is able to do the job.”

Dixon graduated its first class of five journeyman CNC machinists in 2020. They currently have three new apprentices in the CNC program and will soon be expanding to introduce a tool and die program as well.

“We started working with MD MEP on competency-based programs in 2016, and what has grown out of it is a comprehensive manufacturing training initiative – not just for CNC machinists, but now we’re looking at other areas like tool and die, assembly, utility, welding and more,” says Lemon.

“We now have documented processes dictating all our work and training procedures, including when these policies are reviewed and updated, who’s allowed to create work, how we disseminate these processes on the floor, how we train – and it’s all been a direct result of apprenticeship.”

Standardizing these processes not only helps build career pathways for Dixon’s employees, but also helps document the valuable knowledge that resides within the company’s most senior experts, including the tool and die makers.

“Most of the knowledge in our tool and die department resides within two individuals, and we need a way to capture their knowledge, or we risk having a huge gap once they age out of the business,” says Lemon. “We’re seeing that in trades across the board in the U.S. – when a person in a skilled profession retires, there’s a huge hole left behind. That’s why we’ve tried for years to shine a light on the value of learning a trade and raising awareness for career paths in manufacturing that don’t necessarily require four-year degrees or master’s degrees. Apprenticeship benefits both us as an organization, as we can grow our talent internally, and the employee, who can grow their skills and advance their career in a structured fashion.”

As a manufacturing training expert who is responsible for maintaining his company’s workforce, Lemon believes any manufacturer in Maryland would benefit from paying more attention to their strategic organizational development.

“Our company is 105 years old, so we’ve obviously been successful throughout our history. But through apprenticeship, MD MEP taught us how important it is to focus on things like strategic workforce development, career pathing, employee retention – it really all comes down to workforce,” he says. “If we can realize the level of value we’ve gotten out of MD MEP, I can imagine a lot of manufacturers in Maryland would do well to spend some time with them and hear what they have to say – particularly around workforce.”

To learn more about training your company’s next generation of talent through apprenticeship, please contact MD MEP at 443-343-0085 or info@mdmep.org.