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How two local apprentices grew into seasoned manufacturing managers

BY Gregory Seay

9/3/2018
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
Spartan Aerospace manager Wayne Thibodeau shows apprentice Christializ Reyes a machine-tool component used for crafting finely detailed metal parts.
Wayne Thibodeau and Lionel And˙jar both know well and appreciate the worth of skills apprenticeships.

As seasoned managers and long-time employees of Manchester's Spartan Aerospace and its predecessor, each rose through the company, first as apprentices, then onto increasing line responsibilities. Now, they represent the vanguard of Connecticut manufacturing-production knowledge and experience being spread among a new generation of manufacturing talent.

Spartan reinforced its commitment developing homegrown talent by recently participating with a handful of other technology and hardgoods producers in an pre-apprenticeship certification program at Synergy High School in East Hartford.

At Spartan, a handful of Synergy pupils were assigned to intern there. They were tutored by workers who report to Thibodeau, who is responsible for Spartan's operations, and to And˙jar, who supervises its tool room. Spartan's machinery ranges from drill presses to half-million-dollar five-axis turning and milling centers, along with laser cutting, welding and sheet metal fabrication equipment.

Thibodeau's journey

Thibodeau's apprenticeship opportunity came just at the right time in his life.

"I was one of the lucky ones,'' said the 57-year-old married father of three adult children, all of whom have college degrees. " … I don't have the college degree. But it didn't stop me."

He began working right after high school, as a short-order cook, among other hourly pay jobs. He also worked for another area manufacturer, but was laid off. Thibodeau later went to work at a manufacturer where his father worked, starting in the quality-control department.

With that company's sponsorship, he enrolled in an apprenticeship-training program at Hartford's Prince Technical High School. At night, his father taught him trigonometry and other useful calculation and measurement techniques. Exposed to various areas of manufacturing — quality, sheet metal work, running the drill press, doing brazing —he found he liked machining and honed his skills on computer numerically controlled turning and milling machines.

He also had one of the company's most experienced toolmakers as his mentor, which he says was invaluable as an apprentice.

And˙jar's path

And˙jar carved a none too dissimilar path to technical proficiency in manufacturing. He arrived in Connecticut at age 18 from Puerto Rico in 1988, equipped with a vocational-technical certificate from his birth country as an auto mechanic and speaking little English.

"It was hard for me to find a job as a mechanic,'' And˙jar says.

One day he spied a job ad for what was then Spartan Tools. And˙jar assumed they made wrenches and, because he knew how to use one, he applied and was hired on the spot, he said. But he had to learn quickly.

"I didn't know what a drill was; what a center bore was,'' he recalled.

So, And˙jar sought out Casa Boricua, a Meriden support organization to the region's Spanish-speaking community, and got help learning English and more about manufacturing. They sent him, he said, to H.C. Wilcox Technical High School, where he took classes in introduction to machining, blueprint reading and drafting, among other courses.

At Wilcox, he ran into a Spartan manager who, too, was taking a course there. In 1991, after completing his Wilcox certifications, And˙jar signed up for the state's apprenticeship-training program there.

"It's a special training to have,'' said And˙jar, 48, a married father of two.

Meantime, Andujur's drive impressed his Wilcox classmate, who designated him as an apprentice toolmaker at Spartan, eventually rising to toolroom foreman.

Thibodeaux and And˙jar say they relish the opportunity to mentor Spartan's apprentices. The challenge, they agree, is retaining young talent prone to poaching by other talent-hungry Connecticut manufacturers. Keeping them engaged with challenging tasks and paying them well are the best anti-poaching remedies for now, they say.

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