After years of cutbacks, layoffs and scraping for work, business is finally picking up for the tooling industry, but early signs of recovery are bringing with them concerns about finding skilled workers to handle more work today and training a future workforce.
At the same time, fears the economy could slow again are keeping many firms from plunging head first into new hiring.
“Everyone's a little gun-shy,” said Gary Chastain, consulting and training manager for RJG Inc. “When the big downturn happened, people cut back, and they've continued to do as much as possible with as few employees as possible.”
Chastain, who runs training sessions focused on tooling for the Traverse City, Mich.-based consulting company, said in a May 31 telephone interview that he is busier than he has been in years, running on-site classes for firms that cannot afford to take employees off the job for classroom training. Both mold-making companies and workers need to fine-tune capabilities to keep up with the increasing demands on the tooling industry from original equipment manufacturers and molders alike.
“Most companies are [anorexic] because everyone is afraid to staff up,” he said.
And just behind the concerns about current staffing and a shortage of skilled workers are long-term worries about where the next generation of toolmakers will come from.
“It's a growing concern,” said Kym Conis, managing director of the American Mold Builders Association.
Hiring issues and training are rising to the top of worries for AMBA members in surveys, Conis said.
In regular meetings and discussions, tooling-shop owners are saying it is hard to find computer numerically control machinists with programming experience, designers with hands-on experience and people willing to work second shift.
“We ... are having difficulty finding the skilled labor force our industry requires,” said Mike Armbrust, president of Rolling Meadows, Ill.-based AMBA and the general manager of Mako Mold Corp. of St. Charles, Ill. “Beyond the difficulty of simply finding someone with the training and qualification required to perform the job at hand, finding someone that fits your company's culture can prove to be as difficult.
“It's often something that comes down to a ‘gut check.' “
As a result, AMBA has established staffing and training as a core effort and is refining its scholarship program to give preference to those entering training for mold design, computer-aided design and manufacturing, machining, mold making and plastics production, Conis said.
“One of our best hopes is to start to look at our training programs and apprenticeships,” she said.
The group is in the early stages of developing a fall workshop specifically geared at apprenticeship programs.
The AMBA is not alone. The Canadian Association of Mold Makers has seen estimates from the Canadian government predicting a shortfall of as many as 500,000 skilled workers across multiple industries by 2025.
“There's a real shortage of getting kids interested in the trade,” said CAMM President Dan Moynahan, who also owns Platinum Tool Technologies in Oldcastle, Ontario.
”We've really dropped the ball on that in the last half-decade or so, and we need to get the ball back and start getting them in on the trade.”
The organization and Platinum alike have taken part in the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program, which puts high school students into on-site training in a variety of skills including mold making. Students spend a full year at participating companies, which can hook them on careers in those fields, Moynahan said, but the program has a limited number of participants it can handle each year.
Not every company or every area is seeing increased demand. Growth tends to be focused in regional manufacturing hot spots in the Southeast, Midwest and a few areas along the East and West coasts, Chastain said.
Despite the increased demand for skilled toolmakers, though, Chastain noted he sees few young people coming into the business today out of school. And that puts more pressure on existing workers who continue to try to meet demands. It also turns up the heat on companies trying to increase employees' skill levels without committing to hiring increases they may not be able to justify in two or three months, he added.