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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1 Comment

  • Hello Michael,
    I love this article because it shows what’s really happening in the industry.
    My previous life has been 10 or so years of IT, precursed by 5 years of semiconductor manufacturing. My focus has turned to my original wishes to make things has come into focus, as the programming world its self is becoming both more prevalent and diluted.

    I believe I would have been better off if 15 years ago I was encouraged to go through a vocational school experience in the machining, welding and fabrication world.

    Alas, 15 years ago just about every single vocational school and technical school went belly up in Minnesota, leaving options for learning on the fly or having certified experiences to be more than wanting. When I looked around and asked, even DUNWOODY was telling me to pursue computers and programming because the field of fabrication was going to be entirely automated and there’s no work to be found. They had admitted to me around that time that they had to scale back on things for machining because the job placement was attrocious. This has continued up until about 2 or 3 years ago when hints of fabricating came back up as people are now retiring out of the business.

    At the unemployment lines and the dislocated worker programs (I have personal experience with this) They are pushing people completely away from these fields as they show for the last 5 years that it has 10% negative growth and barely any kind of growth in standard machining processes. They look at charts provided to them that show’s next years predicted growth and both fields are showing that it’s negative growth. When compared to programming, network security and IT services (btw IT support is a joke – think off shore now) is predicted at a near +180% for next year, it’s no wonder why people aren’t signing up for this.

    I think another part of this new need is many manufacturers thought they could pull warm bodies from a street, show them how to run a tool without thinking and they could produce things within spec in droves. Thankfully failure at the hands of this thought process has opened a new window for those like my self to take advantage of their passion to fabricate.

    The current technology growth curve in fabrication processes now requires not just a warm body, but some one who has multiple skills in the fabrication process AND computerized / mechanized processes that may or may not be related to the work you do every day. This need to be multifaceted will create some strife in the field until new bodies can be trained in multiple fields or existing workers are stretched thin across the gaps.

    We’ll see what happens in the next 5 years I suppose.

    Good article! Glad to hear from a boss in the field for once!

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