This is My Story.
This is My Story.
Watch Martin’s Video
‘I love the smell of a machine room.’
Born in Germany, Martin Pleyer was always good at working with his hands. After school, he would work on projects around the house and consistently received tools as birthday and holiday gifts.
As part of the school curriculum in Germany, every teenager is required to choose an apprenticeship program. While they are attending school they also work within companies, where they are trained in one of more than 340 occupational fields. Pleyer chose the manufacturing pathway and worked in a plant that produced shopping carts. “I know it’s odd, but I loved the smell of the machine room,” Pleyer said. “It just told me that something was being made there.” During his time at the company, he discovered his passion for manufacturing and decided to focus his career on engineering.
‘Until I was 20 I had never traveled outside of the town in which I was raised.’
Pleyer then went on to attend college in his hometown, where he studied mechatronics, which is a hybrid between electrical and mechanical engineering. “I was in my fourth semester at university, and I had the opportunity to visit a friend in San Francisco and from that trip I was hooked on experiencing other cultures,” he said. Pleyer went on to do a semester work-study abroad program in Detroit, Michigan which he described as a great experience despite “freezing like a popsicle.”
Upon graduation, he was offered a job as a development engineer for a manufacturing company in Germany. After continuing to progress through his career, that same company gave Pleyer the chance to move to Hungary. After five years in Hungary, Pleyer was asked to take on a large role with another German manufacturer in China. “I turned the job down, but jokingly said to the CEO, ‘if you ever have any job openings in the United States, please let me know,’ ” Pleyer said. “I was surprised when six months later I got a call from him about an opening in Atlanta.”
‘I have been lucky enough to travel to 45 states in the U.S.’
Pleyer was drawn to U.S. culture since his first visit to San Francisco while in college. Every year since then, he and his wife vacationed in the States. When the opportunity came to take a job in Georgia, Pleyer, his wife, and their four-year-old daughter couldn’t pass it up.
So in 2011, he took a chance and moved to Newnan, Georgia, just southwest of Atlanta, where he accepted the role of vice president of operations, at Grenzebach Corp., a German manufacturer of technology and robotics for the glass, solar, and building materials (wood, veneer, gypsum) industries.
“It was a big move, but the community has been fantastic and I’ve been able to get involved,” he said. Pleyer immersed himself into the Coweta County Chamber and the Central Education Center, where he currently serves as vice chairman of the board and chairman of the board, respectively.
At work, he led a team to implement lean manufacturing into the Grenzebach culture, helping them achieve a platform for continuous improvement, which included regular kaizen events, 5S implementation, and plant layout enhancements. The team also developed a safety training program and internal safety council. Pleyer has continued to grow his career and is now the chief operating officer. He said, “The biggest win for me has been incorporating our Grenzebach team into the decisions and direction. By just listening to them and getting them involved we have been able to make significant progress in our process improvement and safety initiatives.”
‘One-quarter of our plant floor workforce will be retiring in the next five years.’
As Pleyer became more familiar with Grenzebach’s team, he started to notice a trend. He said, “The average age on our shop floor was 48 and within the next five years, 20 percent of this team was planning to retire. I knew we had to begin strategically training and educating the future of our workforce to ensure that we closed a potential knowledge gap within the plant.”
That’s when Pleyer began contemplating bringing the German apprenticeship model to Grenzebach’s Newnan plant. With his personal experience with the program and his company’s experience successfully implementing it overseas, Pleyer was able to develop a plan to replicate the program at his facility in Georgia. Unlike the plant’s previous internship programs, this apprenticeship initiative allows high school students — as early as sophomore year — to work in the plant 80 percent of the time where they gain hands-on experience in a specific trade. They attend high school the remaining 20 percent of the time, but they stay on track to graduate on time and simultaneously earn technical college credit.
Knowing that the German apprenticeship model was a big change for companies in America, Pleyer and his team decided to start with the Industrial Mechanic path to pursue, because it would help fill what they saw to be a large gap in the marketplace. With this path, they could train high school students to repair, install, adjust, and maintain their production and processing equipment within the plant, allowing for versatility of skills.
‘We used Manufacturing Day as a catalyst to bring manufacturers, the school system, and the community together’
As a next step, Pleyer and his team spoke with partners across their region, including the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP) at Georgia Tech, the Central Education Center, the Coweta County Chamber of Commerce, and the local manufacturing companies to determine if there was a larger need outside of their own and gain buy-in for the program. Other manufacturers expressed the same concerns as Grenzebach, so the committee chose to use Manufacturing Day 2013 as a catalyst to start the conversation. They invited the partners, local manufacturing companies, and the school system to attend a meeting on the first day of October, giving them a forum where both parties could express their needs.
“Georgia Tech did a great job bringing us all together,” Pleyer said. “During the meeting, we saw that we had similar needs and the school system heard our shared concern about the necessity of an educated workforce and that manufacturing was a long-term career choice for students.” During this day manufacturers opened up their plants for tours to the educators, demonstrated their high-tech capabilities and cleanliness of the plant, offered insight into careers, and explained the skillsets needed to close the gap. The educators also discussed the need to provide students with an outlet for learning outside of the traditional classroom setting.
‘The program is a great opportunity to get teens prepared for careers in manufacturing.’
Now that Pleyer and the other manufacturers had the support of the community and the local school system, they had an additional hurdle to overcome. Georgia law did not allow high school students to spend the required 80 percent of the time at the plant. Over the course of 2014, Pleyer put his case together and presented to Georgia lawmakers. On July 1, 2015, Senate Bill 2 was enacted, allowing students who complete certain requirements related to postsecondary coursework to be awarded a high school diploma, thus allowing for the German apprenticeship model to become a viable option for educating the future workforce of Georgia.
This August, Grenzebach and eight other manufacturers in Newnan will be taking on their first set of students under the Industrial Mechanic pathway of the German apprenticeship model. “This program is an incredible opportunity for teenagers to learn applicable skills to industry, earn money, graduate high school on time, earn technical college credit, and be set-up for a long-term career in manufacturing,” he said. The nine participating companies are working hand-in-hand to ensure this program is a success. They have agreed to pay the students the same rate, with incremental raises, each of their three years in the program, to ensure that companies keep the students that started with them.
‘The long-term impact of this program could be exponential to manufacturing and Georgia.’
“Now that the program has been written into Georgia state law, we are able to start implementing and replicating it.”
Pleyer said he’s already met with other counties interested in the program, and that any region that has both a technical college and a career academy can reproduce Coweta County’s efforts.
In five short years, Georgia has become home for Pleyer and his family. He loves the weather and the people, but most of all he continues to be amazed at how the different manufacturing companies work together. They support each other and share their knowledge, which is why he is thrilled to lead the effort to bring the successful German apprenticeship model to his own backyard.
“Imagine the long-term impact a program like this can have. We will be able to begin to fill the pipeline for the future workforce of manufacturing in Georgia,” Pleyer said. “By doing so, we will help the industry flourish and the county, regional, and state’s economies grow.”
About Grenzebach Corp.
Founded in 1920 in Bavaria, Germany, Grenzebach has grown from a small repair shop to where they are today, an international solutions provider with 18 locations on four continents, for production, automation, and logistics.
At the North American headquarters in Newnan, Georgia, Grenzebach manufactures equipment for the glass, solar, and building materials industries, including providing material handling for float lines, complete solutions for the Gypsum wallboard industry, AGV vehicles for warehouse automation, and equipment for the trucking industry to automatically measure tire pressure and tread depth.
For more than five years Grenzebach has partnered with the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP) at Georgia Tech, participating in its Lean Consortium, open enrollment training courses, Innovation Symposiums, and Manufacturing Growth Meetings.