What’s good for this apprentice is good for Nestlé

At our factory in Anderson, Indiana, Lonnie Headley sees nothing but opportunities

Anderson, IN apprentices show visitors what a day in their lives is like. Clockwise from left: William Mullins, Vincent Repscher, Jordan Lane, Jeff Buck, Senator Joe Donnelly, Dr. Sue Ellspermann

If you had asked Lonnie Headley a year and a half ago to explain the world of an apprentice, he may have been at a loss. After all, the 32-year-old Electrical and Control Apprentice at the Nestlé plant in Anderson, Indiana, hadn’t yet explored this new world.

Today, though, Headley is one of 65 Nestlé apprentices — and one of eight at Anderson — who are learning new skills and carving new pathways at Nestlé factories across the United States. Project Opportunity, which Nestlé launched in the U.S. last year, is off and running, helping people of diverse backgrounds gain work experience while strengthening their professional development skills in manufacturing.

“I’m looking at things from a different angle now,” says Headley, who shadows his mentor at the factory as well as attending classes once a week at a community college a few miles down the road from the plant. “Now I can be a part of the improvements while understanding why we do things the way we do.”

By the end of 2016, Nestlé will have eight apprenticeship programs up and running at seven factories in the U.S. And by 2020, more than 30 factories in the U.S. will have an established apprenticeship program.

Nestlé sees this as a way to cultivate homegrown talent through the ranks while filling critical workforce gaps. Getting ahead of this will ensure that we can continue to deliver the highest quality products to our customers through a shared value approach to business. The bonus, though, is seeing the apprenticeships reinvigorate and reinvent employees like Headley.

“When I first started the program, I wasn’t very confident in my abilities,” he says.

Going back to school after 15 years, though daunting, quickly energized Headley. He found his footing, devouring a curriculum designed specifically for the work he would be doing at Anderson. He is working toward his EE (Electrical Engineering) certificate.

Back at the plant, he was impressed getting an up-close look at the vast expertise of the people who had been doing this work for years — people he admired and many of whom he didn’t even realize had taken the apprenticeship route.

“There’s a lot you don’t see as an operator,” Headley says. “But it wasn’t overwhelming to me. It was impressive.”

“Now I can be a part of the improvements while understanding why we do things the way we do,” says Lonnie (on right). Nestlé apprentices in Anderson, IN from left: Jordan Lane, Vincent Repscher, William Mullins, Matt Fullen, Lonnie Headley

Nestlé’s investment in apprenticeships comes at a time when many companies across the United States are having difficulty filling manufacturing jobs that require highly skilled workers. Today’s technology, after all, is complex and demands 21st century skills. The Anderson plant is a testament to this. And it is estimated that over the next decade, the U.S. will need to fill nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs. Because of the current skills gap, more than half of those jobs may not be filled.

Nestlé recognized this workforce challenge in its own factories, where more employees are approaching retirement age and specialized talent is needed to keep a plant like the one in Anderson — which manufactures ready-to-drink products like Coffee Mate, Boost and Nesquik — humming.

Gbolahan Koya, a maintenance manager at Anderson who runs the apprenticeship program, points out that many of the plant’s skilled trades came from non-food manufacturing factories, so there is a long learning curve. It takes time to get everyone up to speed. The apprenticeship program, he says, is addressing this challenge.

“In the next 24 to 36 months, all these people will be ready to fill open positions,” Koya says. “We’re building a pipeline to ensure we have continuity in skilled trade.”

The complexity of the operation comes to life as Koya, who goes by “Gbo” (Gee-bo), walks through the process to make Boost. The product’s label, he points out, includes 26 essential minerals and vitamins that must be mixed precisely. In order for the product to maintain its efficacy, the plant has to control temperatures, fluid levels and pressure, for starters.

“There’s a lot of automation and controls, which is why the skill level of the electricians (and others) has to be on the very high end,” Koya says.

Once Nestlé identified the critical competencies that people across the company would need to make Nestlé products, key knowledge areas were defined. Nestlé then took that information to technical schools around the country, aligning their curricula with the key competencies needed at the nearby factories.

Headley, who has been with Nestlé seven years and has an affinity for Nesquik, says the flexibility he has been given through the program — time for class, time for work — has allowed him to flourish while seeing the Anderson plant through new eyes.

Koya says “the sky’s the limit” for the apprentices, something Headley concluded on his own. The apprentice said in five years, he thinks he’ll consider becoming an engineer at the plant — something that would have been unthinkable before this program.

“It’s like anybody who puts their hand out and helps you,” Headley says. “I feel that way about Nestlé. I owe them because they’ve given me this opportunity.”

Find out more about Project Opportunity and Nestlé apprentices