AMES, IA – Faculty from Iowa State University’s English Department are helping high school apprentices in welding and machinery at John Deere sharpen their writing and speaking skills through a four-week, in-person communications training.
The collaboration between ISU and the world’s largest farm machinery manufacturer kicked off last year at Deere’s facilities in Davenport and East Moline, Illinois, and expanded this summer to include Waterloo.
During two-hour sessions, twice a week in July and August, the students focus on developing interpersonal skills for the workplace; writing clear, concise reports; and speaking to different audiences, including CEOs touring the facilities. They also practice elevator pitches about their apprenticeship program to help with the recruitment of their classmates.
At the end of the training, the students formally present what they’ve learned in their apprenticeship to their supervisors, union leaders and upper-level administrators at Deere.
David Ottavianelli, John Deere’s Director of Workforce and Community Development, called the communications training and partnership with ISU a triple win.
“The students gain valuable communications skills that prepare them to enter the workforce; Deere and the business community grows their prospective talent pools; and the instructors gain knowledge of how our manufacturing works, which they can incorporate into their classrooms and research interests,” said Ottavianelli.
Emma Murray, an assistant teaching professor who teaches upper-level technical and scientific writing classes at ISU, is one of the instructors. After John Deere contacted the English department in 2020 with the idea for a communications training, Murray developed the curriculum with Jo Mackiewicz, an English professor who also has a degree in welding, and Brian Spears, an assistant professor.
"At first, some of the students drag their feet about the communications training, but then they realize it's tied to some incentive pay and can help them make their eventual workstation more efficient, more ergonomic and safer. They see the purpose and buy into it,” said Murray.
One of the ways workers and apprentices at Deere can suggest changes to streamline processes and improve the quality of products is by filling out a “continuous improvement tag.” Essentially, it’s a short report where they identify an issue and suggest steps to improve it.
“Something John Deere has mentioned to us as a challenge is that people will jump straight to the solution or not provide enough context,” said Murray.
During the communications training, Murray and Erin Frink, another instructor and a lecturer at ISU, work with the apprentices to compare tags and recognize what makes some more effective than others.
"We tell the students, ‘The engineers do not know everything that’s happening on the floor. A clear and concise tag saves time for both the welder and the engineer,’” said Murray.
Benefits for faculty
Mackiewicz, Murray and Frink emphasized the partnership with Deere has also benefited their research and teaching with opportunities for job shadowing and hands-on time to learn welding and machining.
“It's been very cool to get into a John Deere site with over 1,000 people. Without this partnership, it would have been a lot harder,” said Mackiewicz, who recently published a book that explores how people teach and learn welding. She’s in the process of writing another about the development of expertise on the shop floor.
Murray and Frink said they teach a lot of ISU students in the industrial and manufacturing systems engineering program. The experience at Deere helps them pull specific scenarios from a manufacturing workplace into their classes on campus and connect with their students.
“I get some street cred when I mention being on the floor at John Deere and my experiences welding and using a plasma cutter. It makes a difference,” said Murray.
From apprentice to employee
High School Registered Apprenticeship Program (HRAP)
Since 2019, Deere has hosted 57 apprentices in welding, CNC machining and IT software engineering as a corporate partner in HRAP. Apprentices work 35 hours per week at one of Deere’s facilities during the summer between their junior and senior year of high school and drop to half-time while in school.
Apprentices may be offered full-time jobs once they turn 18, earn their high school diploma or GED and meet other skillset and behavior criteria.
Twelve of the 15 apprentices who took the communications training last year at facilities in Davenport and East Moline are now full-time employees at John Deere.
That includes Conner Wipperfurth, a welder at Deere’s facility in Davenport and a recent graduate from Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf.
Wipperfurth said he initially had some doubts about the communications training; he viewed the apprenticeship as “a way to get away from school” and focus on welding.
“But as we got into the class, it was fun, and we pushed each other to do better. I found the impromptu speeches to be the most helpful, but in general, the class helped us better communicate and hold a conversation with our supervisors and coworkers,” said Wipperfurth.
IGNITE: Introduction to Advanced Manufacturing
Deere also partners with Hawkeye Community College to host students in grades 8-12 interested in learning more about manufacturing, electrical work and hydraulics. IGNITE takes place at Waterloo’s TechWorks Campus, a former John Deere Waterloo Tractor Works building.
Ottavianelli explained the program introduces under-represented youth to different career possibilities and provides them with hands-on learning experiences.
By taking the communications training to Waterloo this summer, Murray taught nine IGNITE students and six HRAP apprentices. Frink provided instruction for the second cohort of HRAP students at Davenport and East Moline with seven students at each location.
Leaders from Deere and ISU say they want to continue expanding where the training is offered in the coming years.
“The transformation of the students has been incredible to see during the training,” said Ottavianelli. “As John Deere and local high schools continue to grow apprentice and other skills-building programs, our goal is to have additional Iowa State instructors engaged to assist future students in their communication skills.”
Volker Hegelheimer, chair of the English department, shared his support and commended the faculty who led the effort.
“The department’s dedication to providing critical communication skills combined with the expertise and enthusiasm of our innovative instructors, like Emma Murray, has played a major role in the success of the department’s partnership with John Deere.”
Hegelheimer added the partnership with Deere is part of the department’s “on-going effort to align classroom instruction with essential workplace needs” and a model for future collaborations with industry leaders.