San Antonio Express News recently interviewed two apprentice machinists to learn more about how Cox Manufacturing is training people for the "high-need, hard-to-fill" career of manufacturing.
After stints in nursing and working at a corporate office, Sara Vitopil wanted to try something new. But the 47-year-old had bills to pay and a family to support, and she couldn’t afford to stop working and take out loans to go back to school. She found out about an apprenticeship program at Cox Manufacturing, a precision parts maker on San Antonio’s Northeast Side, online and decided to apply. “I wanted to do it for myself and do something I would enjoy,” she said.
Six months later, Vitopil is well on her way to becoming a machine technician. She and the other 39 apprentices in the program spend thousands of hours learning how to read blueprints, measure parts and troubleshoot machinery through a combination of online classes and hands-on training. The pieces are used for everything from scuba diving equipment to medical IVs to computers, and the company ships out more than one million parts a week, said training coordinator Sean Althaus.
Vitopil’s son, Jarred, is also an apprentice and she encourages other young people to apply. “It’s a no-brainer,” Vitopil said. “It’s easy to get started and they give you everything you need. It’s always fun and challenging … and if you don’t want to wear heels, it’s a good job.”
Finding and training dependable workers is a challenge for manufacturers across the U.S., which prompted Cox Manufacturing to launch the training program about a decade ago. Demand has only grown, and as the company expands and sees some of its employees start to retire, drawing young people onto the floor has become even more of a priority, said president Bill Cox. He compared working in the industry to playing an instrument: it takes years to achieve mastery, and a musician is constantly learning and improving. “We look for stable people who have a hunger to learn and want to make a career out of it,” Cox said. “Manufacturing in the U.S. is really strong right now, and we want to train the next generation.”
Faced with an aging workforce and a dearth of people with the right skill set, companies like Cox Manufacturing are taking matters into their own hands and developing pipelines to fill in-demand positions. Others have teamed up with schools and organizations to steer young people toward these jobs, which usually offer a competitive wage without the debt load of a four-year degree.
Jacob Prangner wasn’t exposed to such a career in high school. He was proficient at math and liked taking things apart, but after graduation he worked at a moving company, an airport and a convenience store. “Manufacturing was just a word,” he said. “I didn’t really know what it meant.”
Fast forward a few years and Prangner is set to graduate from Cox Manufacturing’s program in April. He praises the apprenticeship and the company environment, and said he enjoys seeing how the parts he helps make are used for myriad items. Prangner’s wife also works for the company, and he even made the rings for their wedding.
“At the end of the day I go home happy,” Prangner said.