Building a Community with Wepco

by Nicole Mitchell, editor, The American Mold Builder

A career in manufacturing offers many benefits, including multiple career paths, on-the-job training, hourly pay rates that are well above minimum wage and the satisfaction that comes with making something that contributes to the US infrastructure. However, in this time of uncertainty and with unemployment rates at an all-time high, it can be difficult to attract new employees to the manufacturing industry. To combat this, molding industry professionals hope to educate and encourage their communities to consider a job in the trades.

Wepco Plastics, Inc., Middlefield, Connecticut, is a family-owned business that has manufactured parts for more than 37 years. The company serves the medical and consumer goods industries through prototyping and production. Wepco works alongside its community to attract new employees by continuously hosting events and collaborating with local schools. The question is, how do other businesses in the industry get started in doing the same?

Six years ago, Wepco’s average worker was 58 years old. So, when Amanda Wiriya, director of manufacturing support, joined the company in 2016, she realized that Wepco only had a few years before the company’s workforce drastically decreased as its current employees retired.

Wepco needed to change – and change quickly. The goal: To bring awareness to younger generations about careers in manufacturing. Wiriya’s idea for “how” meant getting involved with local schools and colleges. Wiriya worked alongside Chief Financial Officer Charles Daniels to begin the process of deepening the company’s community involvement with a specific goal in mind – employee recruitment.

The initial contact
Before reaching out to any groups, Wepco did research into local community organizations to decide which would best fit its mission. Local schools were the obvious place to begin.

When beginning partnership conversations with schools, Wepco typically starts by explaining background information about the company. “Then we hear a little bit about the school,” Wiriya said. “We learn what the demographics are, how many kids are in the school’s shop or technology class, how many are in the graduating class and more.” Additional questions Wiriya suggested include the following:

  • How can we, as a manufacturer, support the students?
  • Does the school need help placing students for internships?
  • Does the school need field trip locations?
  • Do students need materials and resources?

The benefits and responsibilities of partnering do not fall to the manufacturer alone – the relationship should be equally as important to the school. “If they accept,” Wiriya explained, “we usually try to request that the educators from that school come out and take a tour of Wepco and let us show them hands-on what we do, what we offer and also the different career paths that our team highlights in the building.”

“Some schools are very receptive to our idea,” she said, “and others aren’t.” It’s all about finding the right partner. For Wepco, the perfect partner is a school that allows Wepco the opportunity to provide tours to students and talk about the manufacturing industry. “Almost every educator loves the sales pitch that we make as a way to start the conversation,” Wiriya said. “But it’s whether or not they have the time and the resources to follow through with developing that relationship with us.”

What is offered
If the school says yes to a partnership, there are a few offerings that Wepco can provide in order to encourage students to investigate a future in manufacturing, including internships, apprenticeships, job shadows and educator support. Each program offered is tailored to the individual participating.

Student job shadows
Wepco’s job shadow program was designed to give high school students the ability to explore career paths in the manufacturing industry. Areas of interests include human resources, sales and marketing, business development, machine maintenance, CNC programming, design and product development, injection molding and more. Job shadows can be tailored to the individual student; however, typical job shadows at Wepco are designed to range from two to 15 hours per week and last between one and six months.

Internships at Wepco are offered to high school students at schools in partnerships with the company. Unlike job shadowing, interning gives students the opportunity to work in the career path of their choice while learning more about the manufacturing industry. Wepco offers internships throughout the school year and during the summer.

There are a variety of career paths that Wepco offers internships in, including engineering, CNC programming, plastics processing, sales and marketing and technical support. Each internship is tailored to the student’s needs and will fit around their school schedule, but Wepco’s internships are a three- or six-month commitment for students.

Wepco is a registered apprenticeship sponsor of the state of Connecticut. Apprenticeships offered at the company are paid and in career paths such as mold design, CNC programming, machining, machine maintenance and plastics processing. Apprentices receive scheduled wage increases every six months of working at the company, along with the opportunity to combine hands-on training and classroom instruction. Wepco encourages apprenticeships for students who attend college.

Educator support
Educator support is offered at Wepco in both virtual and in-class forms, such as presentations highlighting career pathways in the industry. There also are school tours and field trips that are available throughout the school year where Wepco customizes to offer the attending students a hands-on experience to learning more about manufacturing.

Wepco uses this time connecting with educators to show the available programs, as well as the overall benefits of working in the manufacturing industry. The company uses its connections with the schools as a chance to offer employment opportunities to interested candidates.

Keep in mind
Since the start of this project, Wepco’s goal has stayed the same. “We want to show that manufacturing isn’t what people think,” Wiriya said. “It might be a good starting place for people.” Because Wepco continues to encourage younger individuals to join the manufacturing workforce, the company’s programs can be seen as a training facility for those new to the industry. However, Wiriya believes the benefits outweigh the challenges. “It’s harder to be that starting point,” she said, “but it’s to be expected. In general, we keep the employees who are a good fit to our company.”

It’s important for companies to know that community activities might not directly result in hiring. But, according to Daniels, it’s always worth it. “Connections created and professional relationships maintained is where the true value lies,” Daniels added. For Wepco, being connected to the community through its outreach efforts has created a reputation as a company that is passionately involved.