Raising the level of skills

January 31, 2018 2:08 pm

By Michael Deren

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Happy New Year! Last year flew by, bringing me another year closer to retirement. During the holidays, I thought about a couple of events from the latter half of 2017.

First, I received a promotion to manage the machine shop where I work. Second, later in the year, three machines failed within 24 hours. Two failures were serious enough to require calling a service technician. (And, no, my promotion and the machines breaking down weren’t related!)

As I checked the work histories of my machining team, I found two pieces of disturbing information. Fifteen percent of my team plans on retiring in 2018, starting this month, and many of our machinists do not know how to run a machine—let alone set up one—other than the machine they are running.

I can absorb some attrition by increasing efficiency, but the real issue concerns the long-term outlook. Prospective employees are not beating down our doors to be machinists, even though we pay quite well, have nice working conditions and provide excellent benefits. The people who seem to be looking for work are those capable of filling only entry-level positions.

In addition, new-generation employees are not pursuing skilled industrial trades; they’re looking at becoming app programmers or game developers. And those are the ones who even want to work! (Even my 14-year-old grandson wants a career in gaming development. Talk about disappointment. I must have failed somewhere, but maybe I can talk some sense into him over the next few years.)

To help correct our situation, I plan to start a cross-training program. This will take some time to implement. I’ll begin by cross-training shop personnel in their cells, then expand their training into other cells. We have vertical and horizontal machining centers, turning centers and cylindrical grinders in our various cells.

We do have a couple of individuals in our assembly and paint departments who are taking machining classes at local community colleges, so that provides some hope.

Based on a discussion I had with the technician who serviced the two machines, I realized that our situation isn’t unique. He mentioned he could use an assistant because he was in his 50s. He disclosed that the youngest service tech at his company is 42. When I began my career, service techs in their 20s were quite common. I remember complaining about not having techs with more experience. I wish I could have looked into the future then.

Having enough machinists and service techs is critical to maintaining a viable U.S. manufacturing base. Robots may reduce the manpower needed for repetitive, tedious production tasks, but skilled people are still needed to set up machines, run one-off parts and program robots.

How about a good push to continue interest in these skills? If we don’t stop the erosion of manufacturing skills, we are doomed to become just a service-related economy.

Let’s all make a New Year’s resolution to do something in 2018 that helps raise the skills level in our industry. Feel free to share your ideas with me, and I’ll report how my cross-training program works out.

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