Training Workforce

Signing Day Starts Skills Development

EP Editorial Staff | May 12, 2021

Filling the skills gap involves a community effort to educate students that manufacturing will present technical and intellectual challenges they seek.

Filling the skills gap involves a community-wide program that connects students with manufacturing while in high school.

By Jesse Henson, ABB NEMA Motor Div.

It’s the first Friday in May and that means the Regional Chamber of Commerce in Fort Smith, AR, is holding its annual Business EXPO and Career Fair. While last-minute touches are put on more than 80 booths, the kick-off breakfast is ready to begin. All 350 seats are filled; you can feel the excitement in the air as today is Signing Day.

Surrounded by parents, peers, and community members, students and local companies come together to publicly announce their commitment to each other. Some of those students are recent college graduates.

For ABB, Ft. Smith, AR (, this is the day we recognize local high-school seniors who have asked to become apprentices in our largest U.S. motor-manufacturing facility. Following three months of applications and interviews, the students are selected, and the ceremony begins with signing letters of intent between students and local companies.

It’s just as you would imagine, with students at a table on stage and company representatives by their side. Once signed, each student receives hats and shirts to welcome them to the team. The ceremony ends with photos, congratulations, and a 12-mo. paid position with the company; all while attending high school.

ABB is just one of a number of companies in the area who participate in an apprenticeship program. Other manufacturers, hospitals, and freight companies are interested in new ways to develop a technically skilled talent pipeline that will take this community from being one that trades employees between companies, to a talent exporter and an economic-development leader for existing and future companies.

More than five years ago, our ABB team specifically identified growing gaps in our employee population, including an aging workforce, increased need for technology-based experiences and skills, and fewer students graduating high school with an interest in manufacturing. As we talked to other businesses in our community, we learned we were not alone. In fact, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), Washington, D.C. (, has recognized that, in the coming decade, 4.6-million manufacturing jobs will need to be filled in this country alone.

Students who participate in the ABB youth-apprenticeship program work full time during the summer and 12 hours a week during the school year. They earn college credit for the whole program.

We are committed to manufacturing industrial electric motors in the U.S., close to the majority of our customers. That means we have to invest in a long-term, sustainable employee model and remain globally competitive while manufacturing in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Mississippi, and Georgia. This investment includes not only the new digital tools, systems, and processes we have in our facilities, but the future talent we need to operate the assets.

In 2016 we began benchmarking talent development models across communities and found a common denominator in many. The most successful models were inclusive and industry led, but not by a single business or company. Companies worked together to determine their talent needs, and they presented those needs to the local K-12 schools and university systems that, in turn, built programs and curriculum to satisfy the needs. The companies also worked with local economic-development teams to gain support for more focused training that could provide the economic-development team a distinctive edge in their marketing efforts. In some cases, the communities invested in modern facilities with state-of-the-art equipment and technology to ensure their students were trained on modern tools by instructors with industry experience.

That’s where ABB started. We worked with a number of other businesses in town to determine what future talent needs looked like for all of us. We spoke with more than a dozen K-12 school districts and university systems about technical concurrent-credit programs, schedules, curriculum, and alternative approaches for the future. We talked with the economic-development team about their vision for the area and the companies they wanted to attract. Shortly thereafter, the Western Arkansas region created its first workforce-development strategy.

The following year, the region established its first workforce-development council, with volunteer representatives from all of the stakeholders (business, education, economic development). The council envisioned an environment in which high-school students could learn real-world skills that would provide local students with better post-graduation opportunities. Following a successful tax increase supported by Fort Smith residents, the council finalized plans for a new education model and a career technology center (CTE).

Below. Six students joined the ABB program at the 2020 Chamber of Commerce Signing Day event.

Training Apprentices

The Peak Innovation Center ground-breaking was held in 2020. It will be owned by the Fort Smith Public Schools and staffed by Univ. of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) professors, teaching technical concurrent-credit programs to high-school students in the areas of advanced manufacturing, healthcare sciences, and information technology. The building and the programs will also be available to more than 20 local school districts. Opening in August 2021, Peak will expose students to advanced technical careers while also providing hands-on training and real-world learning. Since 2018, the CTE center has earned funding from state and federal sources and a number of private donations. Several new businesses have already moved into the region based on this investment in future talent.

In 2019, ABB established a youth-apprenticeship program with UAFS. Students who earn the opportunity to become an ABB apprentice work for us full time during the summer and 12 hr./wk. during the school year. They earn college credit for the whole program.

Apprentices become well versed in safety practices, lean processes, and soft skills such as teamwork and attendance. They have classroom time with a university professor and shop-floor time with mentors and manufacturing engineers. They are scheduled to work in various functions including production, machining, robotic programming, data analysis, and maintenance. Each apprentice can earn her or his Lean Six Sigma white and green belts before graduating high school.

We are currently finishing our second apprenticeship class and will soon announce the third. When students graduate from high school, they have a number of options. Some will go on to college full time as they had always planned. If they’re still interested in manufacturing, we’ll stay in touch. For those who want to go to work, we’ll have a few permanent positions for which they can apply and successfully go to work full time at the age of 18. As an ABB employee, if they decide at any time in their career that they also want to attend college while working, we offer a tuition-reimbursement program that allows them to get a degree without any debt or out-of-pocket expense.

Building this program hasn’t been fast, easy, or without its challenges. It has, however, taught us a lot about what it’s going to take to support our businesses and region in the future:

• We want to continue manufacturing in the U.S. where we are close to the majority of our customers.

• We want to invest in the communities in which we live and operate so our children don’t have to leave to find good careers.

• We’ve met hundreds of bright, talented students who don’t realize the skills they have are what we need for automation and datadriven systems in which we are investing.

• We’ve seen test results that tell us younger children have the aptitude we need but they don’t have a proper understanding of manufacturing.

I’d love to end this article by telling you we’ve solved our problem. We certainly aren’t there yet, but we are finally on a path. As a community, we’ll continue to expose children of all ages to STEM and manufacturing experiences. ABB continues to build partnerships with organizations such as Girl Scouts, EdgeFactor, and NAM to promote the value of manufacturing as a career pathway to students and parents. On Signing Day, May 7, 2021, we’ll watch our third class of apprentices commit to and join ABB. One year later we hope to be able to further commit to a few of them with our own Hiring Day. EP

Jesse Henson is President of the ABB’s NEMA Motor Division in Ft. Smith, AR ( He has been with the company for more than 20 years and has a customer-focused history to solve application challenges across a variety of industries.

To learn more about ABB’s community-wide program to develop skilled workers, listen to a podcast we recorded with Jason Green, Vice President of Human Resources. You can hear the podcast at


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