Preparing its workforce via apprenticeships

Justin Wetherbee (left) and Jarrett Gerken are learning skills in the classroom that are immediately applicable to their work through the RIGID apprenticeship program that Lorain County Community College helped to develop. (Photo: LCCC)

Ridge Tool Company, the maker of RIDGID-branded products, knows how to manufacture tools that stand the test of time. The company invented its first pipe wrench in 1923, and it is still a favorite among plumbers.

The leaders of Ridge Tool know exactly why their tools hold their value: they solve problems.

“In the early 1900s, there was no convenient way to hold a pipe, and that meant plumbers were banging their knuckles during installs and repairs. Our pipe wrench solved that problem,” says Joe Hofferth, plant manager at RIDGID. “That original design is still used on jobsites today, yet as a company we’ve evolved with our customers to create the advanced tools they also need – tools that solve problems using technology, connectivity and more.”

A different problem to solve

Today, Ridge Tool and manufacturing companies nationwide face their own problem: a shortage of skilled labor that’s exacerbated by an aging workforce. Ridge Tool’s solution, in part, is building a foundation for the future of skilled talent through apprenticeship programs.

“As a company, we view ourselves as not simply tool makers, but also solution providers,” says Adam Smithberger, manager of manufacturing technical services at Ridge Tool. “We constantly look for ways to help our customers in the trades fill their skills gap with training and continuing education. Now we’re looking at ways to help our own manufacturing facilities feed their talent pipeline.”

National Apprenticeship Week: The 7th annual National Apprenticeship Week (NAW) is here and takes runs through November 21. Watch the NAW kickoff video from U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh for some announcements and join the celebration of registered apprenticeships.

To support trade-focused apprenticeships nationally, Ridge Tool provides scholarships, tools and continuing education with several national organizations, like SkillsUSA, PHCC, MCAA and NECA, to name a few. Locally the company provides additional training opportunities through its own multi-craft maintenance technician apprenticeship program – a program that’s certified by the state of Ohio.

Ridge Tool created the customized training program in partnership with Lorain County Community College (LCCC). Hofferth says selecting LCCC, which he noted has been the leader in the area for higher education, was an easy choice.

“Ridge Tool’s philosophy and approach to skills training are very similar to LCCC’s,” he says. “We know that hands-on learning is the best; you can’t learn in a classroom alone. You have to be able to put your hands on the tools and use them in a real-life situation again and again. Plus, LCCC is in our backyard. They are a part of our community and recognize the need to partner with local companies to thrive in Lorain County.” 

Working together

This shared philosophy allowed Ridge Tool and LCCC to build a program focused on the right skillsets for each apprentice. They complete 10,000 on-the-job hours and 1,000 contact hours at LCCC, which can then be applied to an associate degree program. The cost of LCCC’s tuition and supplies is paid for by Ridge Tool.

Hofferth says it’s an investment in people who will have the training, experience and knowledge to operate in today’s more tech-heavy manufacturing environment.  

“By having an apprenticeship program, we are in the best control of our future,” Hofferth says. “And this investment in our employees’ growth and development is a win-win for both parties.”

Apprentices know it’s a valuable program that requires a commitment of both time and focus to reach the end goal. For some participants, like Justin Wetherbee, 37, being part of the program means balancing his full-time work schedule with his demanding class load.

“It’s been a challenge moving to night shift, trying to be able to spend time with my wife and kids while working so much and having class,” he says.

The LCCC staff has helped ease the load.

“The professors have worked with us to be able to get more done in the classroom instead of outside during work hours or family time,” Wetherbee says.

Immediately using new skills

Jarrett Gerken, 31, says the skills they’re learning in the classroom are immediately applicable to their workday, creating tangible benefits that outweigh the sacrifices.

“The coursework and workload at my job really make the concepts that we have learned come full circle,” Gerken says.

Gerken and Wetherbee expect to complete the program in 2023 and both know they’ll gain skills that will lead them into the future of advanced manufacturing.

“I have always been interested in technology and automation, which are two things that are currently being incorporated with industry more than ever before,” Gerken says. “I know that the apprenticeship will give me an advantage in an ever-evolving career field.”

Hofferth says the changing career field that made Gerken interested in the apprenticeship program has kept Ridge Tool in close contact with LCCC to adjust the program’s curriculum as needed.

“Over the years, the skillsets required have changed due to the use of more advanced machine tools, robotics and automation,” Hofferth says. “Working closely with the team at LCCC and our current tradespeople, we developed a more diverse curriculum that addressed these gaps and was specifically tailored to the needs of the operation.” 

The Ridge Tool team doesn’t see the need for change slowing down. But the apprenticeship program helps them stay prepared by building a workforce ready for whatever the future brings.

“If the heart of a business is the skilled tradesperson, like the master craftsman or master plumber, then the future of a business is the apprentice,” Smithberger says.

Gerken has internalized that responsibility and says the program already has him looking ahead.

“The ability to work and go to school gives workers the most comprehensive perspective of this career field,” Gerken says. “Next I plan to pursue one of the automation engineering degrees offered by LCCC, which shares many of the credits I’ve already earned through the apprenticeship.”

That mentality is what Ridge Tool leadership hopes for from apprentices who complete the program. Raising educational attainment in Lorain County, while ensuring local manufacturing companies have the skilled workers they need, brings the partnership to the next level.

“Having a higher education institution with dedicated training that is manufacturing-related is a big plus for a community,” Hofferth says. “The relationship between Ridge Tool and LCCC really is building a better community through individual employees and local businesses.”

About the Author

Leigh Keeton
is writer/project coordinator at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio.