Chris Lavery did a recent head count at R&D/Leverage (Booth 47000) of its facilities in Lee's Summit, Mo.
“We have 150 people, and I counted 38 people who are either eligible to retire now, or will be in the next five years,” said Lavery, manufacturing general manager for R&D/Leverage. “We do not have a pool of people to pull from that we can attract to replace these people when they retire.”
The company has mold making, molding and product development with industrial designers in-house at Leverage. It has spent years positioning itself as an international company — with operations near Kansas City and in Sutton, England. At the same time, it has created a production floor that is in step with new manufacturing and development trends. And yet, noted Lavery, it is in a position faced by firms across the industry, needing a new generation of skilled labor, and struggling to attract young people to step into those jobs.
“It's for the highly skilled machinist who can turn out high-tolerance components,” he said. “We have some highly, highly skilled individuals here who are ready to retire.”
Beyond its own needs, though, R&D/Leverage is calling for the entire industry to unite in an effort to find and attract young people into manufacturing. It is working with local schools and students as well as trying to recruit industry leaders. It has even been reaching out to non-traditional spokesmen such as Mike Rowe, who hosts the show Dirty Jobs on cable television's Discovery Channel, and also has a website, mikeroweworks.com, featuring discussions on manufacturing and workers.
Manufacturing in general — toolmaking in particular — does not have a reputation as being “marketing savvy,” R&D officials said, but it has to learn how to get word out about itself. Mold makers are good at solving problems when it comes to making parts, but the problem finding skilled labor is something that will take more than one craftsman to fix.
Trade groups like the Canadian Association of Mold Makers and American Mold Builders Association have taken note of a pending loss of skilled trades workers and launched studies on ways to attract workers.
One way is increased outreach to high school career counselors. Schools typically steer students toward four-year college degrees for office jobs. Teenagers with an interest in making things might be pointed toward engineering.
But Bruce Wardlow, product development director at R&D, said many of those same skills and interests could be honed in technical schools and apprenticeships, where young men and women would learn how to build tools, drill and operate computer-assisted machines.
“A company that has things like that, they have products that these kids can take home and show their families,” Wardlow said. “There's something about being able to hold something in your hands and say, ‘I made that.' “
Demands on hourly manufacturing workers are not what they were 20 years ago. Shop-floor skills today require workers who are as comfortable with computer-aided manufacturing as they are with drills and lathes.
That's why Rexam Mold Manufacturing, the mold-making arm of packaging giant Rexam plc, wants to expand its four-year apprenticeship program to five years — mainly for training in computer-aided design and manufacturing and a computerized measuring system the firm uses more and more as it automates production during lean manufacturing.
“It's not the same animal it was,” said Len Graham, who leads RMM in Buffalo Grove, Ill. “They need to know what's going on during processing, they need to learn about engineering and CAD/CAM.”
The firm is recruiting young workers experienced with computer games, who have a higher comfort level with computer systems, he said. “Kids used to try and hide it if they knew about gaming,” Graham said. “Now we're saying, ‘No, that's something we want.' “
R&D/Leverage is reaching out to young people interested in technology, including sponsoring a robotics competition. Bringing these people to R&D/Leverage — where they can see how far automation is taking manufacturing — opens their eyes to new possibilities, Wardlow said.
“Their eyes get big when they see all the computer equipment on the floor,” he said.
Lavery said the community college program where he studied to be a machinist, graduating in 1993, had only one student complete the full program last year. “That's scary,” he said.
But this year, 20 new students have enrolled for a new course.
“We have to be on the forefront of this [skilled labor] shortage,” he said. “This is right on our heels.”