Home / News / 20 become journeymen at Commonwealth Brands through RCC-funded apprenticeship

20 become journeymen at Commonwealth Brands through RCC-funded apprenticeship

May 21, 2019

REIDSVILLE – As Commonwealth Brands prepares to close its Reidsville factory on Scales Street next year, 20 employees just finished a five-year apprenticeship program that culminated with each of them acquiring a Journeyman’s Card, an Industrial Maintenance Technician Journeyman’s Certificate from the state, and another from the Federal Department of Labor.

With operations moving south to Guilford County, the company in November 2018 said it expected the jobs of its 89 hourly and 28 salaried Reidsville employees to be absorbed by current Greensboro employees. The displaced employees will receive severance.

But these 20 highly skilled men are now poised to land new jobs across a multitude of industries, thanks to the apprenticeship program, organized by Commonwealth Brands and funded by Rockingham Community College.

“Basically what happens with the Journeyman’s Card and Certificate, they’re recognized as a trained, experienced maintenance technician by both the State of North Carolina and by the federal government,” Commonwealth Brands Director of Human Resources Mark Evans said.

“These guys can walk out of here and know what they’re doing. That was our whole goal,” he said. “They’re going to lose their jobs, but now they have the credentials to prove that they know what they’re doing.”

Sally Newman, director of Customized Training at RCC, agreed: “Unfortunately, they are leaving at the end of the year. They are skilled to be very employable with just about any industry.”

The journeymen had to complete 615 hours of training, including on-the-job and tool use. They also had to have 8,000 hours on the job.

“We wanted it to be industrial maintenance technician training so they’re not in a box in one industry,” Evans said.

The apprentices trained in hydraulics, pneumatics, basic electricity and more.

“Congratulations. I know it was a lot of hard work. You guys put a lot into it, and this is certainly well deserved,” Ken Barnwell, factory manager told the new journeymen during the presentation of their credentials in early April.

In the beginning

Remarkably, the local program started even before the ApprenticeshipNC program, which is now available through the N.C. Community Colleges system.

“We got this going, then [RCC] ventured into youth apprenticeships with ROCKATOP,” said Laura Coffee, dean of Workforce Development and Continuing Education at RCC.

“The college provided all of the instruction. Our professors would come and do the skills check-offs and we used some hybrid and online teaching, because we knew we had different shifts to cover,” she said.

“This is really an example of the workforce board… a collaboration between an industry and the college to make sure we have a trained workforce for economic development,” Coffee said.

“When we first started, we saw a lot of turnover coming because of the workforce age, so we built the program so that when brand new people came in the door, they would start at the very first of the apprenticeship and work their way up,” Evans said. “Previously, they would come in and do a 90-day probation, and they would go straight to top pay, just like somebody who had been here forever; but they didn’t have the skill set.”

He said such a practice understandably caused problems at the factory.

“We put the program in to build them up,” Evans said.

Utilizing the Tooling U online manufacturing training site, apprenticeships used five computers in a lab at the factory at down times during their shifts. “We were able to do this without hurting the factory, because once that happens, they will stop supporting the training program,” Evans said.

Tooling U provided the apprentices the textbook and classroom part of the program.

Organizers then sat down with their experienced factory workers to find out what the apprenticeships should learn at each of the four training levels.

“We made a checklist. You go through the classroom, then you go out on the factory floor and you show your supervisor and a union representative that you can do these things,” Evans said. An RCC instructor was also involved in this step. “They would say, ‘show me that you can change, or replace, or adjust, or do whatever is on the list.’ If they did it, they would sign them off; if they didn’t, then they would show [the apprentice] how to do it.”

This process shed light on any areas in which an apprentice may have needed more training.

Existing employees who completed each level – who already had top pay – received bonuses; new hires received raises after each level. This was put in the union contract, Evans said.

“It’s all in their records that an RCC instructor and two people in this building signed off. That employee knows what they’re doing, and they deserve top pay,” he said.

“I’ve heard the Journeyman’s Card is the equivalent of a master’s degree,” Coffee said.

And customized training started it all, Newman pointed out.

“The cool thing about this is that the company builds the course. The state didn’t come in and say, ‘here’s what you’ve got to do’,” Evans said.

Coffee said it’s overwhelming for many companies to come up with the course … so Commonwealth Brands is a trailblazer.

“When we look at the content of the course, it’s whatever we as a company need,” Evans said. “It needs to be legitimate, but I don’t have a prescribed syllabus from the state.”

Newman said customized training is available through 58 North Carolina community colleges – and now Commonwealth Brands’ apprenticeship proves just what that customized training can do.

“It shows what community colleges can do to help manufacturers stay relevant in the 21st century,” Newman said.

In addition to Newman and Coffee, others on hand for the presentation of the certificates to the local employees were Phydesia Lewis, a Workforce Development business engagement specialist with the Piedmont Triad Regional Council, and NCWorks Customized Training Regional Director Cathy Beeson.

“These folks paid for this program,” Evans said of the RCC representatives. “Way back when we said this is what we’re going to do, we went to Sally Newman and these folks and said, ‘Here’s our dream, this is what we want to try to accomplish’, and as long as we jumped through all the right hoops, they said they would pay for it. So thank them. It was several thousand dollars each that [RCC] got approved for [the apprentices to go through the program]. So we appreciated that.”

“You’re more than welcome,” Newman replied.

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Gerri Hunt is director of public information at Rockingham Community College. She can be reached at huntg0780@rockinghamcc.edu or 336-342-4261 ext. 2170.

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