By Jon Wollenhaupt
During the contentious political debates that have raged since the start of the new millennium—the verbal sparring over who and what is responsible for the steep decline in American manufacturing—Impresa Aerospace, based in Gardena, California, has continued to quietly build a stellar reputation as a premier supplier to the commercial and military aerospace industries.
In the aerospace industry supply chain ecosystem, Impresa is known as a build-to-print sheet metal shop that performssheet metal fabrication, precision machining, and advanced fabrication methods such as hydroforming and titanium hot brake forming. At its Gardena facility Impresa employs approximately 200 machinists, engineers, and support staff and will achieve more than $35 million in annual sales.
To keep its employees well trained and its business highly productive, Impresa has formed a long-term alliance with El Camino College, located in nearby Torrance, California. Through its contract education unit, El Camino College provides Impresa with responsive workplace education, customized employee training, and consulting services.
In addition to those workplace development services, El Camino College also plays an important role in helping companies like Impresa secure state funding that offsets the cost of employee training. Eldon Davidson, director for the Center of Customized Education at El Camino College, states, “We are very experienced at securing Employment Training Panel (ETP) funding and managing those contracts on behalf of our clients. We know which industries and types of training qualify for ETP funding. Our staff is well versed in the entire ETP administrative process, including the initial application, contracts, program monitoring, and reimbursement of funds. Because of those capabilities, we are able to handle for our clients the extensive administrative work that comes with ETP contracts.”
To learn more about El Camino College’s alliance with Impresa Aerospace and how ETP funding is benefiting the company, UpSkill California spoke with Dennis Fitzgerald, vice president of operations for Impresa.
UpSkill California: When did you first begin talking with El Camino College about pursuing ETP funding?
Dennis Fitzgerald: We first began talking with El Camino College in 2013. At that time, we were not very familiar with ETP as a funding source for employee training. As we looked further into it, we realized that the administrative requirements of an ETP contract were more than our staff could handle. Because El Camino College had the expertise to write the initial proposal and manage the contracts on our behalf, it became feasible for us to pursue ETP funding. Once the application was submitted and the training approved, the biggest commitment on our end was to make sure our employees were available for the training. Without El Camino College’s expertise and assistance, we never would have been able to pursue these types of grants. Our first training programs with El Camino College kicked off in 2014.
UpSkill California: How is ETP funding benefiting your organization?
Dennis Fitzgerald: We are in a very competitive industry segment and operate on very tight margins. There is a lot of pressure on us as part of the supply chain that serves large companies like Boeing. Therefore, the money we save on training costs because of the ETP funding is significant. Even though those costs are mostly offset, we still make a substantial investment because we pay our employees while they are in the classroom. There is also an opportunity cost involved, because instead of being in a training session, our operators could be making parts or servicing our customers. To give you an idea of the numbers, we typically have 15 to 20 people in a training class that provides 40 hours of instruction over eight to 10 weeks. That’s 600 to 800 manufacturing hours coming off the shop floor that I must account for. It’s a delicate balance between training our team and doing what we’ve got to do to service our ownership and our customers. Because the state pays for the training, and because El Camino College takes on the administration processes, we are able to provide our employees with training that would not otherwise be feasible for us.
UpSkill California: How do the benefits of the training outweigh the cost of off-floor time for your employees?
Dennis Fitzgerald: In terms of ROI, it’s difficult to point to a line on the balance sheet and say, “this is my return.” But experientially, you absolutely know—without making any calculations—that you’re better off. I can say, without having any empirical data to point to, that I know for a fact that we have better operators on the floor and we get a higher-quality product from the team that creates drawings and reviews product. Because of the training, I know our operators are making better decisions. I know that we are making fewer mistakes.
Some important issues to understand are the following: In our industry, we operate as a build-to-print aerospace sheet metal shop where there is a small pool of highly skilled operators. Our most highly skilled operators perform complex hydroform work, which involves a certain degree of art or magic. Those talented operators are at the heart of our business and are a key component of our competitive advantage. Therefore, we try to protect them as best we can. So, anything we can do to convey to them that they’re part of a team and that they’re highly valued is very beneficial to us. Providing them with training that further develops their skills and enhances their productivity demonstrates to them that they are valued by the company. And when you perceive in those employees an increased sense of morale and engagement, that’s the MasterCard commercial moment. That’s the priceless piece.
UpSkill California: What is the process you go through to initiate ETP-funded training programs with El Camino College?
Dennis Fitzgerald: When we need to initiate training, we go to El Camino College’s catalog, select the courses we want, and contact the instructors to determine their availability. It is a great advantage to have the instruction take place on-site at our company. I typically talk with the instructors before the training begins. I ask them about what they teach, how they teach it, and what types of teaching materials they plan to use. Eldon’s staff is great about preparing the contracts and providing us with the Excel spreadsheets in which we provide the ETP-required demographic and pay-rate data.
UpSkill California: What types of ETP-funded training do you most often provide to your employees?
Dennis Fitzgerald: The courses we most often provide to our employees are Microsoft Excel training and blueprint reading, which also involves geometric dimensioning and tolerancing (GD&T), which is a very specific technical skill that involves breaking down three-dimensional shapes and models into two-dimensional drawings.
We’ve also held a vocational English for Spanish speakers class, which gave a broad overview of manufacturing and basic information about manufacturing processes, and included sections on lean manufacturing, inspection, and material science. That class was very well received.
UpSkill California: What other factors make your working relationship with El Camino College successful?
Dennis Fitzgerald: El Camino College is a topnotch school that provides us with excellent instructors who are committed to delivering high-quality training. For example, we often work with Angel De Sevilla, who is a GD&T/blueprint inspector. Before a course begins, I’ll send Angel drawings we’ve made, or I’ll send him programs that we use, which gives him a good sense of the people he will be instructing. In the classroom, he’ll use those drawings for critiques and ask the class if all the information in the drawing is presented accurately. He will press them further and ask, “How can we make these drawings better? How can we make them more readable, more understandable, so it’s less likely the operator will make mistakes?” In this way, Angel ensures that the course is highly relevant to our needs and specific to our industry. It is also a big advantage that Angel can give instruction in Spanish if required.
In addition to the ETP administration component, I can attribute much of the success of our long-term relationship with El Camino College to our familiarity with their instructors, who have an in-depth knowledge of our business and our specific practices and processes. Instructors like Angel understand how our employees work and know our needs as an organization.
An additional benefit for us is that if we need an intern or someone for a project, I can send an email to one of our El Camino College instructors and they will post it in their classes. Last year, we were looking for part-time workers who had some design and drawing software experience to help us. We received 12 résumés for two positions.”
UpSkill California: It sounds like the instruction your employees are getting is being contextualized spontaneously in the classroom, which makes it even more relevant to the work they are doing.
Dennis Fitzgerald: Absolutely. Anybody can go on YouTube and find Microsoft Excel tutorials. The key is to teach people in a way that relates to what they do daily on the job. There’s nothing worse than contracting with an instructor for training who comes in and presents material that is not relevant to what our employees are doing in their day-to-day work. We also try to tailor our classes to the skill sets of the people being taught. For example, in our Microsoft Excel classes, we pay close attention to the proficiency level of the students to make sure don’t have beginners in the same class with more advanced users. This helps ensure we are getting the most for our investment and the students are not wasting their time.
About Impresa Aerospace
Established over 50 years ago, Swift-Cor Aerospace began a journey to become the premier provider of airframes and assemblies to the aerospace industry. Impresa Aerospace was formed in April 2012 when then Venture Aircraft LLC acquired Swift-Cor Aerospace; it is based in Gardena, California. Impresa’s history as a supplier to the Tier 1, Tier 2, and OEM aerospace industry dates to 1962. The company now boasts major contracts with Boeing, Spirit AeroSystems, Sikorsky, Lockheed Martin, and Gulfstream. Notable commercial programs include Boeing 787, 777, 747, and 737; Airbus A330 and A340; and Gulfstream G650.
For more information about El Camino College–Center for Customized Education, please contact:
Email: [email protected]
About the Author
Jon Wollenhaupt is a marketing consultant who writes about topics related to contract education, employee training, and corporate learning for the California Community Colleges. His work is funded by the Technical Assistant Provider (TAP) grant that is hosted at Mt. San Antonio College. He can be reached via email at [email protected]