Williamsport, Pa. -- “Every minute you’re here, you’re getting trained,” says Tyler G. Smith, a maintenance technician at West Pharmaceutical Services, Inc. Smith is currently three-quarters into a four-year registered apprenticeship program administered by Pennsylvania College of Technology's Workforce Development department.
“Every minute” is part of the 144 hours of annual classroom theory – four hours, once a week – designed to help employees and employers alike bridge the gap between skilled positions and the workers who fill them. This instruction supplements the 2,000 hours that Smith and his classmates each spend training on the job.
Smith, a 2012 graduate of Jersey Shore Area High School, grew up on a farm, accustomed to watching machinery in action and letting curiosity chart his course. He ventured into construction for a bit, ultimately gravitating toward manufacturing. Then, with two children under 3 years of age, he embraced the rigorous and career-making commitment to the apprenticeship program.
Curiosity is Smith’s trademark, the reason why he thrives in such an immersive environment.
“He’s the kind of student any instructor would love to have,” said Workforce Development’s Thomas W. Fry, an industrial technology specialist who is the mechatronics subject expert consulting with West on technical skills needs, and has been Smith’s primary instructor in all three modules so far: industrial/mechanical, industrial/electrical, and fluid power (hydraulics).
“He’s always engaged, critically evaluating every statement I make. He compares everything I say to other things that I’ve covered in the curriculum, asking, ‘What about this?’ and ‘What about that?’”
He characterizes Smith as the “canary in the classroom,” setting the tone for his fellow apprentices. “He asks questions that no one else does,” Fry said. “As long as he’s chirping and singing, I know he’s engaged and relating to the material. … and I know the rest of the class is, too.”
Fry prefers a more conversational approach in his classroom presentation, mentoring his apprentices more than lecturing them, and he said Smith regularly honors that relationship.
“He shows up early, 15 minutes before each session,” he said. “And as I’m firing up the computer, I can count on him saying, ‘Hey, teach. I’ve got a question for you.’”
Penn College was awarded one of nine U.S. Department of Labor Scaling Apprenticeship grants to develop and expand apprenticeships for the advanced manufacturing sector.
Overseen by the college in partnership with the New Jersey Institute of Technology, the grant program known as MIDAS is structured to serve more than 3,200 apprentices in such advanced manufacturing occupations as CNC (computer numerical control) machining, mechatronics and plastics process technicians, as well as in several nontechnical skill areas.
West Pharmaceutical Services Inc. is a highly engaged partner in several of Workforce Development’s apprenticeship programs, recently embarking on a mechanical program for sites in Pennsylvania and four other states. A number of other companies regularly find benefit in enrolling their employees as well. Smith’s classmates work for such businesses as First Quality, Conestoga Wood Products, Girton Manufacturing Co. and CCS Industries.
Once Smith and his colleagues complete their final year – programmable logic control – they can sit for their fourth and final nationally recognized PMMI certification through the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies and be eligible for their journey worker’s card.
Smith tends to sell himself short on the education end, referencing his dyslexia and explaining that his learning style has never been conducive to sit-down instruction. He prefers a tactile approach to whatever subject he is trying to master, which has made him a success story in the West Pharmaceutical plant.
“Tyler was a solid team member by all accounts – punctual, good attendance, knew his role and met expectations – but there was an air of untapped potential about him,” said Orion Behrer, human resources manager at West Jersey Shore.
“Through the mechatronics apprenticeship program, Tyler’s untapped potential is coming through in spades. Tyler’s approach to his new role and the mechatronics apprenticeship is allowing him to evolve from a capable production team member into a well-respected and sought-after member of our maintenance team.”
“He has taught members of the department who are seniors in our field different ways to streamline repairs and make the repair more permanent rather than return to the same issue weeks later,” added Ron Long, maintenance supervisor for West. “He uses what he has learned to reinforce and expand the knowledge of those that he works with.”
He has appeared in a Workforce Development apprenticeship video on the college’s YouTube channel and has been called “a sponge” by one his co-workers: a veteran boiler expert, emblematic of the longtime artisans who keep manufacturing alive, who noted Smith’s ability to absorb any skill that he observes.
“From a safety aspect, things can kill you if you can’t see them,” Smith said. “And I learn best by seeing it, from being all hands-on.”
Smith has clearly found a home at West and, as he acquires varied additional skills while moving through the program, affirmation in the helpfulness of his co-workers.
“There are certain people who each teach me certain things,” he said. “We have our hands in so many things anywhere in the plant, and someone will gladly oblige.”