Trend Talks: Tim Byrd

Gear companies across the country are investing in continuing education for their employees. The results are new ideas, new questions, and a well-equipped employee base.


In college, I had a part time job promoting CEU’s (Continuing Education Units) for doctors and nurses. I would call a doctor’s office, tell them about free teleconferences to earn these credits, and ask how many of their doctors would like to attend. They usually hung up on me. I tried to convince myself I wasn’t a telemarketer, but deep down, I always knew I was.

The up side was that I didn’t have to give a sales pitch, because the importance of our product was self-evident: Medical professionals are required to complete a minimum amount of continuing education hours each year, or they risk losing their license. The same is true for teachers, architects, engineers, school administrators, educators, social workers, and many other professions. The logic behind it is fairly simple: if you aren’t growing, you become a liability. In the manufacturing industry, continuing education is also a matter of life and death—of your business.

In the Community
Standing at the head of these classrooms are the instructors, conducting classes year-round on a variety of subjects. One of these classes is the Kapp-Niles Rocky Mountain Gear Finishing School, providing classroom-style and shop floor lessons that focus on advances in profile and generating gear grinding. Dwight Smith, an instructor at the school, said the class attracts students—including industry experts—from all over the world.

“The school is well-received and growing with customers who have recently made the leap into hard gear finishing,” said Smith. “We really go in-depth into advanced gear grinding concepts. These companies invest and become part of the gear grinding world. They need the advanced training to make the most of their equipment.”

Some attendees have been to the class as many as three times, bringing new questions each time they come. “That’s what continuing education is supposed to do,” Smith said. “To learn what questions you even need to be asking.” Figure 1

In other words, continuing education doesn’t just apply to the inexperienced, and that’s a trend I’ve seen first-hand—folks with decades of experience in gear production forging ahead to an even greater understanding of the process. While the wealth of experience in their professional lives can never be replaced with a college classroom, if these veteran employees want to further their education at a local university, most employers are willing to send them.

Of course, you can’t really talk about educating the gear industry without mentioning the AGMA. Over the past eight years, AGMA has steadily added to its advanced gear engineering course offerings to create the AGMA Advanced Engineering Academy. In that time, more than 1,400 individuals have participated in those courses, with some completing at least five of the six courses offered. Those who have accomplished this are awarded an AGMA Advanced Gear Engineering Certificate. For Jan Alfieri, AGMA’s education manager, these numbers are encouraging, to say the least.

 “Attendance last year for all AGMA education opportunities, face-to-face and virtual courses, increased 35% over 2012,” said Alfieri. “It’s gratifying that 23% of face-to-face course participants were from outside the U.S. 9% of virtual course participants were non-U.S. in 2013. We take that as a very positive endorsement.”

Around the World
“A key reason the face-to-face courses are well attended is our instructors, who have a real passion for the industry that is evident in their teaching,” said Alfieri. “The opportunity to network with people from other countries, other companies as well as people from their own companies, brings a new perspective to each class.”

It’s an investment, and for Kika Young, Forest City Gear’s HR director, the return on investment is the employee’s ability to think critically. Kika and her mother, Forest City president Wendy Young, spoke to me about Forest City’s views of continuing education in the industry.

“The more exposure our employees have to outside educational sources and different ideas, the better problem-solvers they become,” said Kika. “They can think more critically, more quickly.” Figure 2

Continuing education assures that new ideas are infused into the production process. It produces confident employees who become more efficient workers, who see management taking an interest in them on a personal level, willing to pay substantial tuition to improve worker performance.

The Bottom Line
Wendy mentions a more practical view on the merits of continuing education: it makes good business sense. In her view, an educated, well-rounded employee can see the big picture and understand the gear production process from multiple angles.

“When a long-term, highly-experienced technician is away from work four to five weeks a year for vacation, it leaves a vacuum in that department,” said Young. “It’s imperative to bring everyone up to par plant-wide. We strive to cross train every day.” It’s this kind of internal mobility—and emphasis on continuing education—that allows companies like Forest City to keep all the parts moving.

“There’s value in this,” she said. “People feel great when they graduate.”

The educational resources available in this industry are staggering. Even in this month’s AGMA update (page 25), AGMA Staff Engineer Amir Aboutaleb raves about 2013 as “another successful year for all AGMA activities and programs from education.” Not all topics are as black-and-white as continuing education, but from where I’m sitting, there is literally no downside to pushing your employees to learn everything they can about every aspect of gear production. The result is a unified, dynamic, appreciative employee base—it just makes sense.