Skilled workers needed to run high-tech CNC machines

Intructor Steve Henkelman programs a CNC machine at Grand Rapids Community College. Graduates of the 18-week class are quickly hired by manufacturers.

Kai Ryssdal: For all the talk about the long, slow decline of American manufacturing, the fact of the matter is that lots of stuff is still made in the U.S.A. That includes places like Michigan, where reports of manufacturing's death turn out to have been greatly exaggerated. Because even if you drive a foreign car, there's a decent chance that thousands of parts in it were made right here. And a lot of those parts -- and a lot of parts for everything else in your life -- were made possible by one particular kind of machine.

Dustin Dwyer of Changing Gears explains.


Dustin Dwyer: CNC stands for computer numerically controlled. And what the computerized machine does is it machines things. That sounds ridiculous unless you know that machine is not just a noun. It's also a specific manufacturing process. It's when you cut away -- or sculpt -- a material.

Peter Zelinski: Machining is at, or very close to, the foundation of manufacturing.

This is Peter Zelinski. He's senior editor at a magazine called Modern Machine Shop. And he says, even if you've never heard of it, CNC machining is essential to your life.

Zelinski: Any product you pick up and touch, it's not too many steps away from a machining process.

Most of the parts in your car engine come from a CNC machine. Medical devices, your kitchen cabinets -- CNC machine. Your computer case, your iPhone earbuds -- well, no. But the mold that created them -- CNC machine. Zelinski says the growth of these machines represents the biggest change in manufacturing over the last 20 years. The people who run them are factory workers. But they also have to be computer programmers.

Steve Henkelman: So, that's T1. M6 is a miscellaneous function.

Steve Henkelman is a teacher at Grand Rapids Community College. He's explaining the CNC machine's programming language. The machine itself looks like a big gray box, with a computer hanging off the side.

Trent Ohren is one of the students here. Ohren says he has friends who do other, more traditional, manufacturing work. CNC machining is nothing like it.

Trent Ohren: They're in more of the automotive, so going to the bar right after they get out of work, as opposed to when I do, it's night and day difference. They're covered in oil and I smell like daisies.

And the pay's not too bad either. Trent could come out of this 18-week class and get a job that pays $10-15 an hour. More experienced machinists can make $50,000-60,000 a year. And they don't need a four year degree to get there. Right now, manufacturers are desperate for these workers.

Mike Hellman: These are the CNC machines.

Mike Hellman is one of the people looking for a skilled CNC machinist. He's head of human resources for Display Pack, a company in Grand Rapids. Display Pack makes that impossible-to-open clear plastic packaging. The molds for the packaging are made on CNC machines.

Hellman's been looking for a machinist for three months with no luck. Only a couple years ago, Display Pack had to lay off machinists.

Dwyer: Where did those people go? Did you try calling them?

Hellman: Some, yes. Some were working, had other jobs, or had moved away or just gone.

Last year, the Manufacturing Institute surveyed companies, and found that as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled in this country because there aren't enough good workers. And the biggest chunk of that number is for skilled production workers, including CNC machinists.

Peter Zelinski says it's one of the biggest problems U.S. manufacturers face.

Zelinski: It wouldn't be competition from China. The number one concern right now is finding skilled people.

And that's really the future of manufacturing in this country -- smarter workers, smarter machines, with computer numerically controlled machines at the heart of it all.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., I'm Dustin Dwyer for Marketplace.

About the author

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter for Michigan Radio in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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