With perfect precision, robotic arms place delectable filled chocolates in a succession of holiday gift boxes here at Elmer Chocolate, a family run company in Ponchatoula that has been manufacturing confections since 1855. Elmer is the second largest Valentine heart chocolate box manufacturer in the country, and produces familiar lines like Gold Brick® and Heavenly Hash Eggs during the Easter season. In 2016, the company invested $44 million in automated advanced manufacturing technology to enable the operation to manufacture 3,000 pieces of chocolate every minute.
Investing in high-tech equipment allows Elmer to meet growing demand for its seasonal sweets, but for the company’s human resources team, it sparked an important question:
How would Elmer ensure a steady pipeline of workers trained in mechatronics — the skillset required to keep automated equipment functioning without interruption?
“It was a great opportunity to create an apprenticeship program,” says Elmer Vice President of Human Resources Ellen Weber. “We knew it wasn’t just Elmer Chocolate that had this workforce need.”
Weber, and her husband, Bernd Weber, Elmer’s vice president of process technology, had been recruited by the company in 2017, having worked at Bühler Inc.’s Minnesota location, a multinational plant equipment manufacturer based in Switzerland. There, they developed a mechatronics apprenticeship program (Industrial Specialist for Machine and Process Technology) for Bühler in North America in which participants train for three years on the job and in the classroom, while also receiving compensation.
“When you have a skills gap, you have to find a sustainable solution, rethink and go into action before the gap gets too large,” says Weber.
Bernd and Ellen Weber brought the idea of a mechatronics program to GNO Inc.
Already creating demand-driven, rapid response training programs through its GNOu program, GNO Inc. agreed the project was needed and facilitated the creation of the Mechatronics Apprenticeship program in fall 2018, a unique partnership between multiple industry partners and three educational institutions: Northshore Technical Community College, Delgado Community College and Nunez Community College. The selective program trains apprentices in eight-week rotations in the classroom and on the job over two years. Students are compensated $10 an hour plus benefits, and receive education and training at no cost.
Elmer was joined by Laitram and Zatarain’s McCormick as the inaugural industry partners. Applicants are accepted by one employer, and complete coursework at all three schools. Each eight-week block places them on the job, then in the classroom, rotating from job to school over the course of the two-year apprenticeship period.
“What was really interesting about this project is that we had three educational institutions come together and partner to make it happen, says Program Manager Josh Tatum of GNO Inc. “The strong partnership and leadership between the schools is like no other.”
Northshore Technical Community College Chancellor William Wainwright says that the colleges pooled their resources to create a standardized interdisciplinary program that responds to the needs of industry and plays to each college’s strengths.
“Each of us assessed our faculty and programmatic capabilities to develop the curriculum,” says Wainwright. “This is a really innovative program for Louisiana and the feedback we’ve gotten nationwide from our peers in higher education is incredible.”
Mechatronics, by nature, is multidisciplinary, incorporating electrical engineering, robotics, program logic control, industrial machining and other disciplines. Each of the three colleges offers specific components of an overall curriculum that prepares students to work in a growing number of diverse industries that use mechatronics.
“We layered a program that is very unique and very beneficial to both students and our industry partners,” says Nunez Community College Chancellor Tina Tinney. “You clearly see the growth in the individual student as they move through the program.”
While students learn different aspects of the curriculum at each college, they apprentice with one industry partner, which will onboard them as a full-time employee once the program is successfully completed.
At Zatarain’s McCormick, apprentices have the opportunity to work with a $5 billion global food company. McCormick acquired local brand Zatarain’s in 2003 and doubled the footprint of its Gretna facility, investing $30 million in 2014 with new technologies that support multiple production lines for spice blending and packaging.
At Laitram, apprentices learn the business of making conveyor belt systems and other advanced manufacturing processes that allow companies like UPS and Amazon to fill orders across the globe.
“We are continuously trying to improve and innovate so that we can respond to our customers’ needs,” says Laitram Talent Acquisition Recruiting Supervisor Allison Thomas. “This program gives our apprentices an opportunity to work in key positions within the company and learn the valuable skills needed as technology advances in the rapidly developing manufacturing sector.”
Thomas says apprentices begin the program with limited skills, but after a few rotations from job to classroom, they pick up skills quickly and learn to apply a broad range of information from school directly to the job site. The colleges not only teach hard skills, but soft skills, too, says Tinney, including leadership and interpersonal communication.