VP of Operations: ‘Investing in employees … is part of our DNA here’

When Will Rabun joined the Factory Electrician/Instrumentation Technician Apprenticeship Program at Michigan Sugar Company in May 2020, he was looking to carve out a better life for himself and his family.

Rabun, 31, planted his career at Michigan Sugar in 2013 working as a Bench Chemist at the company’s factory in his hometown of Sebewaing. During his seven years with the company, he had worked a variety of jobs, including Carb Press Operator, Boiler House Fireman, Pellet Mill Operator, Lime Kiln Operator, Oiler, Dryer Leader, and House Leader.

“The apprenticeship program gave me the opportunity to push myself further, professionally,” said Rabun, who still lives in Sebewaing with his wife Nichole and their four children. “I’m learning a new skill set that would be transferable anywhere, which means I’m also providing security for my family’s financial future.”

Rabun said he became highly interested in building his knowledge at Michigan Sugar while working as a House Leader.

“There were things I didn’t fully understand in terms of how the factory operated – its electrical and pneumatic systems,” he said. “Now, I’m learning those things and have a much better understanding of how our factory functions.”

Mary Vandiver, who also is part of the Factory Electrician/Instrumentation Technician Apprenticeship Program, echoed Rabun’s comments about building a set of highly sought-after skills and said she also enrolled because she believes it will lead to future growth at Michigan Sugar.

“My No. 1 reason for joining the apprenticeship program was to push myself to be better,” Vandiver said. “And I feel I have the full support of my company because they also want me to better myself. I’ve worked hard to get where I am, and Michigan Sugar is rewarding that hard work by giving me the opportunity to go further.”

Vandiver, 31, started with Michigan Sugar in 2015, working as a Flumer at the Sebewaing factory. She went on to work as a Bench Chemist and Special Chemist before enrolling in the apprenticeship program.

“It was also important for me to show my son that anyone can do it – male or female – at any age,” she said, adding she and her husband live in Unionville with their 7-year-old son.

Vandiver explained that since joining the apprenticeship program, she and her fellow apprentices have taken a variety of in-person and online classes through Delta College and have received on-the-job training, working with mentors inside the factory.

“Michigan Sugar Company is paying for my education,” she said. “They pay for my classes, my books, and even my mileage to get to and from class. They are literally investing in my future.”

Stephen Zaherniak, an Apprentice Electrician at Michigan Sugar Company’s Caro factory, said beyond having his education funded, the apprenticeship program also has resulted in a significant increase in pay.

“I was making $12.41 per hour working as a janitor at Michigan Sugar,” said Zaherniak, 26, who enrolled in the Electrician Apprentice Program in April 2020. “Now, I’m making $28.83 per hour, and I’m scheduled for another pay increase soon.”

A 2012 graduate of Caro High School, Zaherniak began working at Michigan Sugar shortly after graduation as a seasonal Piler Operator. He later worked as a Lime Kiln Operator and Sweeper before taking the janitorial role.

“I always said that if I ever got a year-round job here, I’d be a Michigan Sugar lifer,” Zaherniak said. “I now see myself working as an electrician for this company for a very long time.”

In Zaherniak’s case, his apprenticeship will last four years. Because they added instrumentation to the program, Rabun and Vandiver will be in the program for six years.

“We’ll have four years of classes and 8,000 hours of electrician work, followed by 4,000 hours of instrumentation work,” explained Rabun, a 2007 graduate of Owendale-Gagetown High School, who worked at a variety of dairy farms before joining Michigan Sugar Company.

“My goal is to become a Master Electrician and keep working my way up the company ladder,” said Vandiver, a 2008 graduate of Laker High School who went on to study advertising marketing management at Northwood University in Midland and then took interior design classes for two years at Baker College in Owosso.

“It was during my time at Baker when I became interested in the deeper workings of interior design – reading blueprints, understanding how the infrastructure of a house works … knowing where to put the outlets and why,” Vandiver said. “I’m now building that skill set and getting paid to do it.”

Vandiver noted she is now earning $30.91 per hour and will eventually make more than $36 per hour. As a Special Chemist, she earned $13.61 per hour.”

“The apprenticeship program has been life changing,” she said.

Michigan Sugar Company currently has more than 35 employees from its factories in Bay City, Caro, Croswell, and Sebewaing enrolled in apprenticeship programs.

Jason Lowry, Michigan Sugar’s Vice President of Operations, said the apprenticeship program is one way the company fulfills its mission: Creating Growth & Opportunity.

“We work very hard to identify employees who not only work hard, but who show interest and initiative in wanting to grow with the company,” said Lowry. “We are a company where you can continually learn, develop new skills, and move your way up, both financially and in terms of leadership and responsibilities.

“Investing in employees who want to move forward with Michigan Sugar is part of our DNA here.”