BASF Wyandotte expands apprentice program for skilled manufacturing jobs

Sara Cambensy

An apprenticeship program launched by BASF last year went so well, the company is offering it again, and has even higher expectations that quality employees will emerge.

One reason for the program is the tight labor market throughout the country. Demand for skilled workers remains high.

A couple of weeks ago, the company announced that to address this challenge, BASF is further expanding its North American Apprenticeship Development Program and welcoming nearly 100 apprentices at 20 manufacturing sites across the country.

The program offers a unique opportunity to gain on-the-job training and earn industry-recognized credentials while receiving a full-time wage.

The company’s 2022 roster of new apprentices include an average 44% female selection rate, further supporting the company’s goal of increasing the number of women in manufacturing.

In May 2021, BASF Wyandotte was among the first of the company’s facilities to launch the apprenticeship program to develop a pipeline to meet future talent needs for a skilled and diverse technician workforce, with an emphasis on attracting more females to these roles.

One of the people who took advantage of the opportunity was Emily Canfield of Southgate.

Canfield embarked on her eight-month apprenticeship at the BASF Wyandotte site in the Polyol plant.

“I wanted employment that offered a future and to belong at a company where I could continuously learn and grow,” she said. “I wanted to do something that kept me active and productive. I like to be hands-on and working at BASF checked all those boxes.”

For Canfield, who had never worked in a manufacturing or warehouse environment, this role offered true on-the-job training. She was supervised by Amanda Taylor, BASF Wyandotte Polyol operations manager, who introduced her to the Polyol team and aligned her with a shift supervisor.

There was a learning curve starting with the basics — safety protocols, trainings, and operating a hi-lo for the first three months of the program. Canfield elected to begin her shift earlier to align with other employees’ start time and attend a pre-shift meeting which helped her to build relationships with the team.

Canfield’s 40-hour workweek included classes two days a week to earn a certificate in process technology from Henry Ford College in Dearborn.

BASF’s apprentice program is a full-time direct-hire and pays a full-time competitive wage, offers benefits and covers the cost of tuition, books and fees associated with the certificate program.

“The most challenging part of the program was juggling work and school with my home life,” she said. “I am a wife and mother of two young boys, so making everything fit into a day was quite the challenge.”

The BASF Polyol plant assigned Canfield dedicated trainers to teach her the drumming process, which consists of filling totes and drums.

As she increased her knowledge and skillset, she began working overtime midway through her training to complete tasks and help to deliver customer shipments.

The extra dedication to her job also gave Canfield the opportunity to work with operators, gaining valuable knowledge and skills during her regularly scheduled shift.

Throughout her training, Canfield’s supervisors said she took ownership of projects including the re-organization of the drumming office, assisting with implementing lean practices and more. This helped her to build a network and learn different skill sets. She also was able to touch base with Taylor daily to gain insight from her experiences in manufacturing at BASF.

“Emily and I worked together to prioritize tasks to align on her development,” Taylor said. “We had conversations about her experiences with her classes and discussed what she can learn here at Polyol. It was important to me that Emily knew that she could have a career at BASF.”

Last October, Canfield qualified for the drumming process and was ready to move on to her next qualification in the tank farm. By the end of the training program, she knew everyone in the plant and had paired up with operators in the tank farm on her own to shadow them on the job to gain more experience.

After completing the apprentice program, Canfield was embedded as a chemical operator in Polyol in January.

“Hiring into the manufacturing industry was a major change for me and my family,” Canfield said. “This program offered a great opportunity and was essential to my transition into this profession.”

Jonathan Weatherly, vice president of operations at BASF Corp., credited everyone associated with the apprenticeship program for its success.

“I’m proud of everyone that contributed to the success of this program at Wyandotte,” he said. “Certainly, the program architecture set us up for success, but we could not have been successful without the leaders creating an inclusive learning environment and those who were willing to work hard and learn something new.”

The apprentice program will resume its second cohort in August and company officials are excited to find out how many qualified candidates will apply. They say it offers an opportunity to step into a great career with immediate competitive pay, while developing their skills on the job.

The starting pay is $18 an hour, and progresses to $21 per hour.

BASF was not immune to the so-called “Great Resignation” that followed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Weatherly said BASF Wyandotte still has a solid core of experienced employees who remain with the company, employees who are instrumental in helping to make the apprentice program succeed.

The program is placing an emphasis on attracting female employees, but both females and males are accepted. The industry has historically attracted males, which is one reason for the push to bring in more females.

Weatherly said there are a number of reasons why more women have not chosen manufacturing as their career path.

“Many feel they don’t have the background or education,” he said. “Historically males grew up in dad’s garage, or whatever life experience they had set them up for success. The apprenticeship program takes those barriers away. Experience is not required.”

Weatherly said he believes another drawback to attracting more women to manufacturing has to do with the fact that they haven’t had many role models to look up to. But with three daughters of his own, he sees that change is not only on the horizon, in many ways it has already arrived.

“That was 30 years ago,” he said. “I have seen tremendous change in our industry. There are a lot more people to look up to.”

Referring to the apprentices, Weatherly said they were intentionally paired with mentors from the company’s manufacturing team, which now includes many more women than in the past.

“The beauty of this cohort is that success breeds success,” Weatherly said. “With more and more females in our population, it becomes less foreign. It makes our demographics look like outside our fence.”

Under the pilot program, 10 apprentices were hired. In the second cohort, the company is targeting 10 to 15 apprentices.

That may not seem like a lot, but the program brought out several candidates who already had the qualifications to be hired immediately. The pilot program at the company’s Wyandotte facility drew almost 200 candidates.

“Based on the great interest, we made some direct hires last year,” Weatherly said. “We told them ‘You are qualified — you can work for us today.’”

Hiring qualified employees is important in all professions and industries, but manufacturing is particularly challenged.

The National Association of Manufacturers projects a labor shortage of 2.1 million unfilled manufacturing jobs by 2030, which has been further challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

BASF, along with other companies in the industry, are focused on developing a skilled and diverse talent pipeline, which company officials believe is crucial in meeting its staffing requirements and driving continued business and manufacturing success.

Candidates interested in applying for the apprenticeship program can do so until June 17.