Skills training: Assess before you train

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by Tim Wilson

There’s a lot of talk these days about the need for Canada to educate more skilled tradespeople, and the role that individual businesses can play. The criticism is often that business doesn’t invest enough, but part of the problem is that they don’t know how to proceed. Assessment, after all, is crucial, yet metalworking shops have varying degrees of competency.

“All shops, to my knowledge, put potential employees through a skills test,” says Michael Vincent, managing director at the Atlantic Metal Working Association (AMA) in Riverview, NB. “I know larger, more established shops, go beyond the skills test and request further HR testing on ‘soft skills’ and other pertinent areas.”

Vincent says he is hearing from employers that more training is needed in soft skills at the post-secondary level. Employers want to work with fresh talent that shows promise, but soft skills like communication, teamwork, and time management can be harder to assess than technical skills. For that, screening is a must.

“Our initial screening for youth begins very simply,” says Robert Cattle, executive director, Canadian Tooling & Machining Association (CTMA), in reference to the Ontario Manufacturing Learning Consortium (OMLC) CNC Machinists Level 1 and the CTMA Introductory Trades Training Program. “We ask: do you like working with your hands, seeing how things work, taking things apart, working in a factory environment? We are looking for participants who have the correct attitude and aptitude.”

This is an area where, understandably, many job shops do not have the skills, time, or even inclination to assess a prospective candidate for training. But if you are going to put money into an employee, it only makes sense to first assess whether or not that person is worth the investment. One plus is that a lot of apprenticeship programs prepare potential employees for self-assessment.

“Apprenticeship is the most accurate way to establish skills and their methodology,” says Vincent from the AMA. “Those who have completed or are participating in the apprenticeship program for their trade are very aware of their skills and abilities, because they are clearly defined.”

Specifically, Vincent calls out the province of New Brunswick, which he says has an excellent system for training skilled tradespersons. The AMA itself has been working with jurisdictions across Canada to further develop a harmonized apprenticeship system.

“Both public and private post-secondary education institutions are engaged, and lead in the development of skilled tradespersons,” he says. “In New Brunswick, skilled trades have a system known as block release. Once a tradesperson achieves journeyman status, training continues on an individual basis.”

And that should include soft as well as technical skills–but often it doesn’t. According to the Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC) in Chicago, IL, companies are challenged when it comes to administering comprehensive training self-assessments to their workforce, even on a purely technical basis.

“Some companies do have self-designed assessments, but they are often too company-specific or difficult,” says Michael Slezak, director of Business and Workforce Services at JARC. “The majority of companies we work with don’t use an assessment.”

JARC has developed its own metalworking skills assessment tool to determine if an employee is a good candidate for advanced training. This includes an online version that, according to JARC, has been increasingly popular with employers.

“Most employers feel it is a balanced and versatile assessment,” says Slezak. “We use the assessment to determine where the candidate will start, particularly if they have the requisite math skills to go into blueprint reading and metrology.”

As it stands, in Canada a lot of companies simply want experienced workers to start right away, and to immediately begin producing. However, it can be hard to find the right fit, and an increasing number are realizing that that approach could result in a long wait.

“They realize that there are not a lot of prospective, experienced people available for hire,” says Cattle from the CTMA. “They have told us that the current systems in place are not really serving our industry well, so we need to be looking in new directions for training.”

To address the problem, the CTMA has partnered with the OMLC to come up with the CNC Machinists Level 1 and the CTMA Introductory Trades Training Program. A big part of the success of these programs is an assessment program that includes character traits as well as technical aptitude.

“We have a very stringent assessment test which helps us find the candidates that are truly interested in learning and in being taught new skills,” says Cattle. “They need more than a ‘get a job’ mentality. By following this process, we believe–and it has been proven in our first intakes–that we will be presenting participants who are looking for an opportunity to get into this field and are keen and eager to start learning the trade.”

Building an assessment program

When building the CNC Machinists Level 1 and the Canadian Tooling & Machining Association (CTMA) Introductory Trades Training Program, the CTMA sought help from the Ontario Manufacturing Learning Consortium (OMLC) and a private firm, LSM Consulting.

“We relied on LSM Consulting, which has experience in industrial psychology, to develop screening tools for our applicants,” says Rod Jones, program co-director at the OMLC. “Competencies are pre-defined, and then there is an interview plus testing.”

Jones says the assessment process is useful for companies because it reduces the risk they take when hiring a trainee who may have little experience or relevant education.

“It’s also highly valuable for the young trainee,” he says. “The trainees can be very confident that they have what it takes to succeed in their training and enjoy their work going forward.”

The funding source for the program is the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure, as part of its youth skills strategy. The target was to help underemployed people between the ages of 18 and 29, with engagement by community organizations, as well as cities and regions.

“The goal is to not just find jobs that pay a minimum wage, but that can lead to a well-paying position, and ultimately a career,” says Jones. “There are also information sessions–we might have a CNC machinist come in and talk about what that it is like–as part of an extensive outreach program.”

So far, the program appears to be working. All of the 35 candidates made it through the three-week training program, with about 20 companies participating. Six candidates then dropped out or were diverted when they hit the shop floor. The weak spot? Of the remaining candidates, not one is a woman. This is an ongoing challenge: most experts agree that cracking the gender divide is critical to building a sustainable workforce in the industry.

Tim Wilson is a contributing editor to Shop Metalworking Technology Magazine.

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