Training center models itself on woodworking business
August 24, 2014 | 7:00 pm CDT

To get its graduates hired by woodworking companies, the GreaterWest Town Training Partnership operates like a woodworking company.

The Chicago woodworking training program was recently recognizedas the WMIA Wooden Globe Educator of the Year by the Woodworking MachineryIndustry Assn.

“We’re trying to model what a small woodworking company wouldlook like,” said Doug Rappe, GWTTP program coordinator and instructor. “That’swhy WMIA recognized us. We’ve put ourselves out there as a model for othercities that might have a strategic local industry.

“My experience in doing this for 21 years is that the companiesthat succeed are the ones that really train their employees, make sure theyhave the skills they need, and back it up with good equipment.”

The woodworking training program takes 15 weeks and is afull-time commitment, seven hours a day, five days a week, Rappe said. Thosegoing through the program get a minimum of 450 hours of training. GWTTP graduatedits first students in 1993, and has had more than 715 people go through theprogram.

Manufacturing emphasis

“We try to teach a manufacturing approach to things, as opposedto craft woodworking,” Rappe said. “The idea is that they will build a drawerbox, cabinet box, and then drawer fronts independent of each other, to thedrawing specifications, and then everything comes together.”

Rappe said that the emphasis here is on doing the job right thefirst time and doing it to specifications, as opposed to crafting, which is themore traditional idea of woodworking that many people have. Younger peoplehaven’t had a shop class or any manufacturing experience, so it’s difficult forthem to visualize.

“The fact that it’s a huge hobby also works against us,” hesaid. “People put it in that category and don’t think of it as a career.”

Prospective students get a shop tour to start, with a secondvisit a week later. Two people on staff interview all applicants. Rappe saidthey always have more applications than they have seats for. Sometimes peoplerule themselves out.

“One of the big limitations we have is the time,” he said.“Someone has to be available for full-time training. The program has the hoursof a full-time job, with no pay. That’s tough.”

GWTTP does advertise, and has a network of other neighborhoodorganizations and word-of-mouth contact from previous graduates.

”We’re really looking for job seekers,” Rappe said. “That’s themessage we have out there. We’re looking for people who are after full-timeemployment in the industry.”

Rappe estimated that about 30 percent of students have notcompleted high school. People have the opportunity to earn a GED here. Mosthave some work experience. The average age of students is in the late 20s toearly 30s.

Once underway, students will work with all the equipment in theshop, including portable power tools and hand tools. They’ll get differentlevels of instruction on the machines, with more time on common equipment suchas table saws, routers and sanders.

In the first four weeks the student will build a basic box, do somepanel processing with particleboard and laminate, and some solid wood work.After four weeks the instructors will look objectively at whether the person isa good match for the program.

“That first four weeks really tell us a lot,” Rappe said.“Occasionally there is a person who is not a good match.”

Safety is the number one concern, since people are working withequipment immediately.

For many students, math is a challenge, and measuring can beespecially difficult with the United States one of the last holdouts in notusing the metric system. “Measuring is tough,” said Rappe, who also teachesmath as part of the program. “We have this antiquated and complicated system.

“We have two to three hours a week of classwork devoted tomeasuring. We made extra-large rulers for the shop, and created flashcards totest “5/8” on one side, and the actual appearance of the ruler itself on theother. It took us a long time to figure out, but we have a good strategy forteaching measuring. We make it fun. And people can apply it immediately in theshop.

Rappe’s duties include the shop, classroom instruction andworking with outside companies. “I’m involved in day-to-day instruction in theshop. I’ve also been doing math class instruction, and everything aroundmaintaining the equipment and keeping it running, ordering the materials, anddesigning and selecting the projects that were going to make.

New shop space

GWTTP moved to its current space, which was a former envelopefactory, four years ago. The well-lit and spacious shop area is about threemiles west of downtown Chicago.

The effort to build a modern, well-equipped shop really started14 years ago, when the organization spent $100,000 to outfit the shop.

“It’s rare that we have that kind of money to spend,” Rappesaid. “At that time we were getting the assets of another not-for-profit, acommunity group that was training low-income people.

“That was at a time when we really wanted to implement this moreadvanced shop to keep up with what was going on in the industry.”

The centerpiece of that upgrade was a Weeke Optimat BP60machining center, which is still in use. Rappe credits a relationship withStiles Machinery in helping the shop stay current.

“They are good to schools and can give us a discount inconsideration of the fact that we’re training on their equipment,” he said.

“Stiles is so big in education themselves. The real benefitstarting out for us was getting that CNC machine 14 years ago. I went up to GrandRapids for the Weeke training. The technical support is great. You can callanytime and they never say, “Well that machine is 14 years old and we can’thelp you anymore.”

Equipment in the shop includes a Brandt edgebander, Altendorfsliding table saw, Butfering widebelt sander, Castle pocket cutter, Powermatictable saw, Moak jointer, Whirlwind sander, Felder shaper and Universal laser.

They want to add a moulder in response to interest from localcompanies for people with moulder training. New space is also being set up toadd spray finishing training.

A new Mayer veneer saw that is about 30 years old was addedrecently, contributed by a local shop that had closed. Rappe contacted Mayer inEurope for an owner’s manual, and was able to get most technical information.

GWTTP is an entity within Greater West Town Project. It works ona contract basis, agreeing to train, place and retain someone in a job. Federalfunds come through a local workforce partnership, a joint Cook County and Chicagoworkforce board.

“They’re performance-based contracts,” Rappe said. “They’recompetitive in that we have to produce, year after year. We have a level thatwe have to achieve in order to be refunded.” Philanthropic organizations,including Lloyd A. Fry Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, also providefunding.

Also on site is a 12-week training program for shipping andreceiving employees that includes forklift operation, barcode, UPS and Fedextraining. This is a separate program, but this and the woodworking programshare some resources, including an OSHA training course.

Goals of the program are similar to woodworking. They have theirown advisory group. A lot of people are motivated because they see jobsadvertised for a forklift operator. “They will get people placed in supervisorypositions, just based on training and some work experience.”

Employers wanted

Graduates of the woodworking program are mostly working insmall- to medium-sized shops, including a wood frame manufacturer, architecturalmillwork shop, closet and cabinet producers, and a lumber company. Mostemployers are local. The program has also placed people in non-woodwork jobswhere there is cutting involved and the skill set is the same.

Companies can help the program by hosting a tour, coming out asa speaker, or supplying materials or consumables needed in the shop. But hiringa graduate is the ultimate thing they could do.

“That’s really what we’re after,” Rappe said. “Our students areentry level, but they’re ready to go.”

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About the author
Karl Forth

Karl D. Forth is online editor for CCI Media. He also writes news and feature stories in FDMC Magazine, in addition to newsletters and custom publishing projects. He is also involved in event organization, and compiles the annual FDM 300 list of industry leaders. He can be reached at [email protected].