Comprehensive employee training programs from big-name manufacturing companies are frequently heralded. Optimax Systems in Ontario, New York, is not a big manufacturer, but it has designed a learning culture that builds its business around the evolving skills of employees. The family-owned optics manufacturer’s investment in its workforce is paying off with rapid growth, improved staff retention and a reputation that wins contracts with NASA.

Studies from the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) and Fortune Magazine have found that companies that provide good jobs outperform their competitors. Optimax exemplifies this investment approach and uses a range of training and development practices to engage employees, generate innovation and lead in its market. Specifically, Optimax invests in the continuous learning and career development of its employees and then empowers them with a management style that prioritizes their insights and decisions.

Optimax’s 200 “craftsmen” manufacturing employees use computer numerically controlled (CNC) technology to fabricate the company’s high-precision optics for medical devices and aerospace. Upstate New York had a long history of manufacturing, but closures during the end of the 20th century tarnished the occupation for many students, and the area is facing a massive shortage of qualified hires. Optimax realized that the company needed to design a new approach to find the right employees. As human resource manager Alejandro Mendoza says, “We aren’t primarily concerned with credentials; we look for people from our partnerships who want to work with their hands, want to learn, and want to grow with the company.”

As a result, Optimax actively recruits and trains its workforce by investing in an internal apprenticeship program to develop new employees and a community partnership to grow the entire region’s manufacturing workforce. Optimax president Mike Mandina founded the Finger Lakes Advanced Manufacturing Enterprise (FAME) to help manufacturers collaborate with local colleges and workforce development programs to create awareness of employment opportunities in the industry and to build a pipeline of qualified technicians. FAME helps to spark an interest in the field, but Optimax’s internal apprenticeship program is what transforms an interested student into a trained optician.

Over the course of the three-year program, apprentices are paired with an experienced mentor who oversees their classroom and on-the-job learning, and they are encouraged to apply their knowledge on increasingly complex projects and tasks. After the apprentices are considered fully trained, they join one of the company’s multiple self-managing production cells, where they work with a range of machinery to independently move a job from raw material to products worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Because each optic is specially designed for the unique needs of the clients, Optimax’s opticians are constantly challenged to try new methods and to produce new products. This challenge demands a culture of experimentation and continuous learning. Opticians are encouraged to “fail fast” and learn in order to meet new demands and take risks that might end in failure or a valuable breakthrough. Optimax CEO Rick Plympton summarizes this culture by saying, “When we take advantage of everyone’s knowledge, particularly those closest to the work, we make faster and better decisions.”

Optimax is one of several companies taking a new approach to their operations and future: Labor and workforce programs are no longer an expense to be constantly cut but an investment to grow. Like investing in physical capital, companies that make strategic investments in their human capital are seeding higher returns for the future. This strategy is not a luxury that is only feasible for big manufacturers. The National Fund is seeing a trend, exemplified by Optimax, that companies of all sizes benefit these proactive investments.

Optimax is set to grow its manufacturing space by 40,000 square feet and its workforce by about 50 percent by 2025 because of its investment in its frontline employees. With American companies set to receive a large dividend from the recent tax cut, other businesses should take the same approach and use these new resources to make a catalytic investment in themselves by making a serious investment in their employees.