Today's Machining World

Moving from Help Wanted to Help Found

Jessica DuLong profile photo

Jessica DuLong

Published August 1, 2008

Attracting the next wave of skilled workers

Driving around among the windowless, steel-sided buildings in South Bend, Ind., I missed, at first glance, the faded sign for Value Production, Inc., but not the hand-stenciled sign on the front lawn, its slightly crooked letters spelling out: “HELP WANTED CNC PROGRAMMERS.” It reminded me of other postings I’d seen around the country. These hand-made signs erected as temporary measures seem, inevitably, to end up as permanent fixtures. Why all these empty positions? How come the next generation isn’t stepping into jobs left open by retirees?

Steve Hartz, president of Value Production and Value Tool & Engineering, Inc., had put up his sign as a last-ditch effort, “just hoping somebody coming down the street might see it.” He’d given up on classified ads, staffing companies, and local colleges. For the time being, Hartz conceded, the placard will stay. But if the plan he’s concocting comes to fruition, it won’t be up for long.

“In the papers and on the 6 o’clock news, all you hear about manufacturing is how it’s dying in this country,” said Hartz. “But manufacturing’s not dying, we’re just dying for skilled people. I’m actually foregoing expansion because I can’t find qualified people to do the work. I can buy equipment any day of the week, but machines are useless without people to run them. We could double our business if we had the staffing in place. The work is out there.”

Hartz said his company has touched the manufacture of nearly every plane in the sky, from Boeing 777s to Cessnas and from F-16s to the new joint strike fighter. “Either we built the parts, the testing units, and/or we did research and development projects.” The business is thriving, but staffing roadblocks have stalled growth.

Statistically Speaking

Hartz is not alone. Eighty-one percent of respondents to a 2005 National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) survey said they struggled to find qualified workers to fill open positions, despite the fact that manufacturing wages and benefits are about 25 percent higher than non-manufacturing industries. The average age of these workers is 50, according to a December 2007 Automation World article. As these workers retire, young people aren’t stepping up to fill their shoes. The industry is suffering the fallout of a public-image nightmare of grand proportions.

Working for Change

To counteract that effect, government agencies, national organizations, and foundations have been working to send a new message about manufacturing. The U.S. Department of Labor produced a publication for their “In Demand” series geared toward young people that touts the benefits of a career in advanced manufacturing. It highlighted hot, high-paying jobs that tapped employees’ curiosity, passion, and creativity.

In 2005, NAM and the Manufacturing Institute joined forces to launch “Dream It. Do It.,” a marketing campaign designed to raise awareness among 16 to 26-year-olds about the diversity of manufacturing careers available, supplemented by an “on the ground” coalition of regional groups that go into schools to offer plant tours and externships. Through his Nuts Bolts & Thingamajigs Foundation, John Ratzenberger has organized Manufacturing Summer Camps, Discovery and Invention programs, and Tinkering Days.

Manufacturers have been forced to take new approaches to fill open positions. Some companies have teamed up with academic programs—donating equipment and scholarship dollars. Others have focused on developing in-house training, while still others, like Hartz and his South Bend consortium, are teaming up with competitors to increase the worker pool that everyone in the region can tap.

We’re going to create the new economy,” said Peg Walton, NAM’s director of the National Center for the American Workforce. But the challenge comes in communicating that to the next generation. “The Dream It. Do It.” campaign is an effort to open the eyes of a new audience to the incredible opportunities in advanced manufacturing. People don’t think about what’s going on in those big facilities they see on the side of the interstate,” said Walton.

Enthusiasm Grows

Joe Merchant would agree that old stereotypes are a barrier. “A lot of people’s image of manufacturing is WWII vintage,” he said. Having just retired after 36 years at Vincennes University, the former chair of the Machine Trades Technology Department remembers when that WWII-vintage description wasn’t so far off.

Vincennes graduated its first Machine Trades class in 1968, and Merchant started with the program a few years later. “We were using a lot of WWII surplus equipment then. The program didn’t look at all the way it does today.” He recalls the excitement among companies when Vincennes launched its third-year option in CNC Advanced Manufacturing three years ago: “‘That’s fantastic,’ they said. ‘What can we do to help?’”

The news spread by word of mouth, and soon every manufacturer wanted to get involved. “The companies wanted people who could not only punch a button on a CNC machine but do the programming and know what was happening when that cutter came into a piece of material cranking at 15,000 rpms,” recalled Merchant. “They were flabbergasted that they could get somebody who knew what was going on. We developed a good rapport with a large number of employers.”

That rapport soon translated into dollars and equipment. Several companies sponsored students, while others donated as much as $5,000 per year to help with tuition. “We got a grant from Eli Lilly. They’re a gigantic supporter of education. We got a $1.5 million grant, half of which came to this department. That enabled us to purchase five machines in cooperation with Haas Automation. They gave us seven more. Haas was a big supporter of our program.”

This kind of support from industry sources has been crucial to helping programs like Vincennes’ keep pace with industry changes. And the investment into machines can translate into an investment into students. “I’ve got a million-dollar lab sitting out there,” Merchant explained. “I can’t have a dummy walk out there and start punching buttons on those machines. Minimum you’re talking $65,000 for one of those. These students have to understand what’s going on when they walk up and push that Go button.”

Changing Perception

Just as companies struggle with stereotypes that discourage new workers, educational programs struggle with stereotypes about which students are best suited for manufacturing work. The real-life complexity of these trades seems to be lost on high school guidance counselors, said Merchant. The tendency is to funnel students with poor academic performance into a vocation
track. Though some of those students turn out to be highly skilled on the shop floor, Merchant said the industry misses out on some top performers interested in the field. “One reason we’re having a problem recruiting qualified, intelligent students is because high-school guidance counselors are telling motivated students: ‘Go to a four-year-degree school, not into something like manufacturing.’”

This advice is often pegged to associating degree level with subsequent income. But, as Walton
pointed out, the income level for bachelor’s level graduates is softening and differential between white and blue collar has flattened. If more students were encouraged to pursue their curiosity about how things work and how they’re made, perhaps the industry wouldn’t be suffering such a shortage of workers.

That’s the idea behind Hartz’s South Bend project. Merchant told me about Hartz while talking about the South Bend region’s manufacturing heyday, when Bendix Missile and Studebaker operated in there. South Bend is where Merchant did his student teaching in the early seventies, and since then, vocational education in junior and senior high schools has taken a dive. That’s why he was so excited about Hartz’s project, which he called a landmark grassroots effort to bring more people into manufacturing. His excitement was what brought me to Foundation Drive, hunting for the sign for Value Production.

South Bend’s Initiative

Inside his building, Hartz was laying the groundwork for an innovative approach to the skills-gap challenge: teaming up with his competitors to launch The Apprentice Academy. I sat down with him and Suzanne Wheeler, a representative of Vincennes University’s business and industry training, to hear more about the project.

Hartz said the idea for the academy grew out of his frustration at the ineffectiveness of local resources. He invited his competitors to join him in creating an industry-driven school. The Apprentice Academy was born in June 2007 when Hartz invited the principals from local metalworking companies to a meeting to discuss opening a state-of-the art training center. Hartz had already teamed up with Vincennes, WorkOne, a regional employment agency, and the Workforce Development Group, a South Bend-based group that monitors and encourages training programs in the region. Bender Plastics, in nearby Mishawaka, had offered up space for the meeting, and a facility stocked with equipment for the new Academy.

About 30 people attended. For Hartz, teaming up with his competitors to solve a problem affecting all of them made sense. “Right now the worker pool only has so many people in it, so if I get somebody, my competitor loses somebody. When my competitor needs someone there’s a chance I’m going to lose someone. And who does that help?” Hartz explained. “I sat down with my competitors and said: Let’s start doing marketing and looking at our future. Let’s start looking at grade and high school kids, and people in this community looking for jobs. The people are here; the skill is not. Let’s start working on the skill, knowing that it’s not an overnight process, but if we don’t start sometime, we’re never going to get started.”

Hartz’s competitors rallied to the cause. By the second meeting, the consortium had set two specific goals: to work on training incumbent workers and to feed the pipeline with future workers. Within months the Academy received private donations of equipment and space, gotten support from local and federal governmental officials excited about the concept, and been contacted by volunteer instructors.

On the first of October 2007, the Academy held its first class, a two-credit-hour Shop Math class taught using a Vincennes University curriculum. Ten students enrolled: eight incumbent workers from consortium shops and two women new to manufacturing who’d been referred by the Workforce Development Group. For seven and a half weeks, the students met for two hours twice a week. Only one person dropped out, and of the two students not in the industry, one took a job in a consortium shop after the class. “That means we’ve got a 50-percent employment rate!” laughed Hartz. The class, he said, was a strategic move to draw attention to the project and demonstrate that the Academy takes action. It worked. “It’s been unbelievable. I’m kind of in awe,” said Hartz. “On a daily basis, I get a new group calling for help, or for us to get involved with their projects.”

According to a Workforce Development Group report, about 1,290 CNC operators worked in the South Bend region in 2002. Factoring in industry growth and worker attrition, the group estimates that by 2012, the region will be short 210 operators. Manufacturing has long been the life’s blood of South Bend’s economy, and Hartz wants to keep it that way. Having taken initial steps toward training incumbent workers with the Shop Math class, the Academy moved on to the recruiting part of their mission. They invited local high-school counselors to an open house at one of the consortium’s facilities, Schafer Gear Works, Inc., where the educators heard a presentation about the benefits of a manufacturing career and toured the shop.

By addressing the counselors directly, the consortium hoped to correct the misconception that manufacturing is a dead-end road and that a four-year degree is the only path to career success. “The counselors are trying to put every kid through college, but that’s just not realistic,” said Hartz.

“People don’t all learn the same way,” agreed Wheeler. “We need to look at different environments for young people to learn. They might not excel in an academic classroom, but they might excel in a shop setting.” Once they reached out to the counselors, they began recruiting students. The consortium companies sent representatives into schools to speak in the homerooms of every sophomore class and talk to students during lunch. So far 35 students have signed up for a fall training program. These students toured different manufacturing facilities, and through the rest of the school year, consortium representatives met with students monthly, bringing pizza and keeping in touch. “We’d give them handouts and show-and-tell items,” explained Hartz. “Now my customers are involved by giving me parts to show the kids. It’s great.”

As word spread about the consortium’s efforts, community members started asking Hartz about setting up non-manufacturing related training programs. Hartz embraced the idea. He presented to the consortium the concept of expanding the Academy to disciplines beyond manufacturing. “I was afraid to bring this up at the meeting with these manufacturing people. I thought, ‘If I get too far off here, they’re gonna fall off the wagon,’” Hartz recalls. “I put it out there. As it turned out, most said, ‘I’m glad, because if it was just going be about manufacturing and not about community, I didn’t want to be involved.’ I almost cried. It was that emotional to me, and still is.”

The scope has expanded, but the manufacturing program is still on track. The second class, Blueprint Reading, another two-credit-hour class is now underway, with eight students. And a Technology Camp, “designed to expose students to the world of manufacturing by providing hands-on learning experiences,” is scheduled for late July. A year after that first meeting, the Apprentice Academy is off to a running start.

Ferris State steps in

In Big Rapids, Michigan, I was standing in the hallway between the welding and machine shops at Ferris State University talking with Manufacturing Department Chair Gary Ovans about the future of U.S. manufacturing when a group of teenage boys walked in. They were kids from a vocational program in nearby Mason, Michigan, here on a field trip to learn about post-graduation opportunities.

Ovans and I had spent the morning deep in conversation. He told me about the inevitable paradigm shift away from the high-pay, low-skill jobs that had made Michigan automakers go belly-up. He talked about how some educators want to push less capable students into vocational education because they think it doesn’t take brains to negotiate a technical field successfully. He talked about the challenge of getting people to read behind the headlines to see that manufacturing in this country isn’t dying, just changing—that tremendous opportunities were opening up in the industry because of turnover, allowing for rapid ascension into middle and upper management. He also told me about the challenge of maintaining enrollment numbers given increased tuition, less state financial aid, and that students have to be convinced to go into manufacturing against the tide of public opinion.

“In our machine-tool program we used to start 36-40 students in two sections in the fall,” Ovans explained. Now we have 10 starting in the program and one section.” I knew that recruiting new students was both essential and difficult. There in the hallway, I realized these highschoolers were the faces behind the numbers. I wanted to know if these young men were the future of manufacturing.

The students’ tour-guide, Dean Krager, associate professor of Manufacturing, Tooling and Technology, talked about life and academics at Ferris. After a walk-through among the Hurcos, LeBlonds, Amerikams, and other machines in the shop, Krager asked if they had questions. “Yeah, when’s lunch?”

Krager laughed. “Are these teenage boys or what?” he joked with their instructors, Dave Van Dyk and Gregory Butts from the Precision Machining Program at the Capital Area Career Center in the Ingham Intermediate School District. Krager led the group to a classroom where he gave a presentation. He enumerated the benefits of a career in manufacturing, discussed growth industries, explained that high-tech jobs aren’t moving overseas, and rattled off some impressive starting salaries.

Then it was time for lunch. I talked to one young man who’d sat in the first row and had piped up with some germane, non-food-related questions. Which is not to say he didn’t enjoy his lunch. I peppered him with questions in the dining hall while he plowed through a tray heaped with cafeteria treats.

Justin Myall, 18, was a senior at Mason High School who had spent half of every school-day for the past two years at the Capital Area Career Center learning precision machining. Until Myall toured the Career Center in tenth grade, he didn’t have a concept of machining but liked the idea of working with his hands. “Plus there’s a lot of math and I love math,” he explained. “And I’ve always liked machines.” What appealed to him most on that sophomore year
tour was the measuring tools. “I really liked the fact that I could make something more precise than a human hair,” he said. “It’s cool to have things accurate like that.”

Before today’s tour of Ferris State he figured he’d become a CNC operator, but after Krager’s presentation, which introduced him to the role of the toolmaker, Myall decided he might do that. “I like things that are high-tech. And money.” Like most students, Myall’s big concern about applying to Ferris was financial. “I want to see if I can get some aid,” he explained.

From cows to CNCs

Myall came back to the table with a swirl of soft-serve vanilla in a cone. “So you live on a farm?” I asked, and he nodded. “What kind?” He pointed to the ice cream, swallowed, and said, “Dairy.” He explained that his grandfather had established the farm and his brother runs it now. Justin does the milking every other night after school.

“So why aren’t you going to be a dairy farmer?” I asked, then heard the warmth in his voice when he talked about the farm. “I could. I was thinking we should get a lathe and a milling machine because there’s always stuff to fix and no money to replace anything. All the money on a farm has to go straight back into the business.”

And right then it became clear to me. Not just the wonder of being eighteen with a lifetime of choices ahead of you, but also the arbitrary reality of individual career decisions. Maybe Justin Myall will end up in a job shop, bringing his talents and penchant for accuracy to parts manufacture, filling one more slot in the skilled-worker gap. Or maybe he’ll just stay on the farm. Ultimately the biggest challenge facing the industry, educators, and community leaders, will be finding ways to appeal to the fickle appetites of youth.