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Developing My Dream Company

A Fabtech technician works with his apprentice.
DEVELOPING ‘MY DREAM COMPANY’ THROUGH APPRENTICESHIPS
Greg Mattson’s program turns motivated workers into skilled technicians

A decade ago, Greg Mattson noticed a disturbing trend: Fewer technicians were being trained to create custom orthotic and prosthetic devices.

Mattson — who founded the Everett, Washington-based manufacturer Fabtech Systems and serves as its president and CEO — relies on these technicians to build high-quality products. After getting his education in orthotics and prosthetics, Mattson worked for a decade at other hospitals and organizations, always with the idea of building his own company alongside a group of good people.

But as Fabtech lost longtime craftsmen to retirement and trade schools struggled to attract new students, good people with the right skills became hard to find.

“We could not find certified, trained technicians to hire,” says Mattson, a Vistage member since 2006. “It’s an artisan craft, and it’s really challenging to find people. If we didn’t do something, we were going be out of luck.”

Not only would Fabtech be out of luck, but so would people who relied on its products. Fabtech’s team of roughly 20 people creates custom orders for patients — each device is fitted perfectly to the patient.

Mattson needed to find people with the skills to create specialized products, so he and his partners decided to train their own specialists.

In 2013, Fabtech launched an apprenticeship program, one that would allow them to hire and train new employees to be expert orthotic and prosthetic technicians. Fabtech posted ads looking for people who could work with their hands, wanted to help people and were eager to learn new skills. If they found the right person — someone who fit the culture, would train a minimum of two years, then stay on to work — Fabtech would pay for their certification as an industry technician.

Immediately, Fabtech received responses and hired people who fit their culture and wanted to be trained. They examined new apprentices for 90 days to see who would do well in the program.

Space in the apprenticeship program is limited to two people at any given time. That’s because apprentices must always have access to someone else on the floor — they need to ask questions, watch trained technicians work and learn to do tasks by Fabtech’s standards.

“You always have access to the trainer. That’s the key to success,” Mattson says. “You can’t just be out there by yourself struggling, especially when it comes to decision-making.”

Fabtech operates on its own set of standards, uncommon in its industry, which Mattson refers to as one of the company’s “recipes.” He saw the importance of standards on a trip to Japan, visiting Toyota and other companies to learn lean manufacturing. Standardization heightens the quality of each product, but it has also been essential to the apprenticeship program’s success.

“We use a skills matrix, so employees would know that they need to be able to grind, to build a cut, or to use a particular tool,” Mattson says. “Those are all steps in the skills matrix.”

Thus far, the biggest benefits of the apprenticeship program have been growth and retention. In Fabtechs’ industry, Mattson says losing a skilled technician could mean losses of $5,000 to $10,000 per day. Since implementing the apprenticeship program, they’ve lost fewer people — those who left have either retired or relocated — and Fabtech has been able to grow in production by having more in-house trained technicians.

Mattson says he believes that if Fabtech didn’t have the apprenticeship program, it wouldn’t have a future. This is especially true as several U.S. trade schools continue to struggle.

“Employers should be going into an apprenticeship program as a No. 1 strategic project,” he says. “As an employer, I want to hire people who I’m positive can actually do the job.”

Fabtech’s motto is to “make more possible,” and Mattson says that he’s been able to do that through this apprenticeship program and with the help of his Vistage group. Mattson’s peers and Chair helped him understand that to build the company of his dreams, he’d have to first focus on culture. Now, through this apprenticeship program, he’s seen his dream company come to life.

Mattson’s favorite story from this program came from watching the growth of an apprenticeship graduate. Ten years ago, Fabtech hired a man who had just left the National Guard — he knew nothing about the industry, but Mattson liked how he fit into the culture. Today, the former guardsman manages the shop floor at Fabtech.

Recently, Mattson went to a trade show and heard rave reviews about this employee. “When you see somebody who didn’t know anything about this, they changed their life, and now customers love them and they’re actually the face of your company, it’s a great feeling,” Mattson says. “I think it’s a huge success story.”

Greg Mattson, President & CEO of Fabtech Systems
3 LESSONS LEARNED
With Kevin McKeown, Mattson’s Vistage Chair
Job satisfaction is the key to retention.
Greg and his Fabtech team are learning that their technical apprenticeship program increases job satisfaction and retention, which results in lower turnover costs.
Apprenticeships can create highly skilled workers for technical duties.
The program is helping his team recruit and develop a highly skilled workforce. Employees benefit by having the ability to earn national industry-recognized certification and receive unlimited, free, on-the-job mentorship. This program is a win-win for Greg’s employees and his company.
Connecting vision, purpose and structure.
What I love about “Greg the CEO” and “Greg the person” is his vision, persistence and ability to create a connected purpose. He’s intentional about the culture he’s building.
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