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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Great to hear that the subject is getting interest,
This dilemma started over 40 years ago and I have now retired from the CNC business.

They (Industrial Management) dismissed the importance of the Tool & Die world, the computerized machines, and did not train. There were so many skilled toolmakers from the WWII production blitz that industry forgot to train their replacements.The wages were too low and many of my contemporaries (baby boomers) chose to wait tables at a high end restaurant, for example.

This article nailed it correctly, nothing happens without these machines and the tools produced from these skilled workers. Just how do these hi-tech items appear at the stores? Everything is made from parts, somehow from raw materials into finished parts.

Solution, increase wages, too simple? Nah, too easy.
Just ask Boeing how much their most valuable CNC programmers get.
It takes more time to train a skilled aerospace CNC programmer than a M.D.

Vocational tech schools are just the beginning.

Get into this trade, it is wide open now, but the problem is not going to get solved until we get the wages due for the skill involved.

"aren't enough good workers"
. Dustin, maybe you mean "not enough trained or skilled workers". NPR could probably use some good commentators, and some good fund raisers.

ARGH! Notice that the phrase "...been looking for a machinist for three months with no luck. Only a couple years ago, Display Pack had to lay off machinists."
So, here is a novel concept: instead of laying off machinists, why not cross-train your existing employees, to operate these new machines?
A) They have already passed all your I-9 and background checks
B) their work history is already known,
C) they already know your company...and...
D) they don't have to re-locate to where your company is located...(bonus!)
(Are you really, surprised, that most of them are no longer available? What did you think these laid off machinists were going to do, wait a couple years, for you to call them? )
For companies really, to be expecting people to pay for their own training (with what - unemployment?) and get their "experience" somewhere else (i.e. a competitor?) and then poach them, for your company, now that *you* need them......
Why not invest, in your people? The potential results:
A) employees trained to your, predefined standards and needs B) current employees with additional, skills that don't "have to be laid off" and C) some pretty darn happy employees, glad their company valued them, and their skills....
Is this really, a novel idea - or basic, common sense?

dswilson, while your suggestion would definitely work with quite a few other careers, in most cases, it just isn't feasible to crosstrain employees from other parts of the company into a machinist position. Machining is a skilled trade that takes a considerable amount of time to learn(I've been in the trade for over 10 years now and I'm still learning new skills on a regular basis), as well as considerable investment on the part of the employee as far as tools, etc.... Not to mention the fact that in most cases, it isn't just a matter of knowing the company's predefined standards and needs- there are global, and industry wide standards that take quite a bit of time and effort to learn (this is particularly true in the aerospace and medical manufacturing industries). There is a reason why companies would rather spend months looking for qualified machinists rather than train them up from within- it's expensive, time consuming, and it typically results in a net productivity loss while an already overstretched machining department has to take time to show the new person the ropes.

Yours is an excellent suggestion.

I took a look at the Grand Rapids Community College website (since the picture that accompanied this story showed an instructor from that school programming a CNC machine.)

They charge $5,000 for a 4 month course. (http://cms.grcc.edu/job-training/programs/machinist-cnc-technician)

It would be a good, cost-effective, option for a company that has already paid plenty of money to hire and train an existing machinist to send them to a program like this (even if they had to pay back the cost of the training) and have almost a new employee trained in four months.

It seems that American companies do not spend enough training the employees. There has allways been a shortage of skilled labor. This has led to immigration, not that I am complaining because that’s how I was able to come and work here. Since opening our company in 1978 I have made use of the Maryland Apprenticeship program and trained our employees. Growing your own employees is very rewarding for everyone, employee and employer. German companies have strong training programs and because of that they do not lack the skilled labor to stay a leading manufacturing nation.


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