Manufacturers in the U.S. are facing a tough fight — not merely in terms of adapting to meet a changing global economy, but to recruit the skilled workers needed in that new global economy.
“We are the most productive nation in the world,” said Tom Henry, manager of Sandvick Coromant Co.'s education and productivity center. He spoke during a panel discussion about recruiting employees during the Amerimold show, held June 14 in Novi. “The average manufacturing worker makes good pay, and that's the message we're trying to get out.
“What we find, though, is that kids and their parents, they think that it's dingy, it's dirty, that it's failing — and that's what we're up against.”
Sandvick Coromant, a global supplier of cutting tools with U.S. offices in Fair Lawn, N.J., has launched outreach programs to get its pro-manufacturing message out to students as early as eighth grade. Parents and traditional school counseling programs look at employment numbers, saying that there are fewer manufacturing jobs than there were 20 years ago, but they fail to see that change reflects improvements in productivity, Henry said. Work that took 1,000 workers in 1950 can now be done with 150, he said, but those 150 must be highly skilled and proficient with computer-aided design and manufacturing.
“We've got to teach these kids and teach them at an early age,” Henry said.
Sandvick Coromant is not alone. In Irvine, Calif., RapidTech is a pilot program — supported by the National Science Foundation — geared toward prototype manufacturing with classes beginning in high school and connected to further training in skilled manufacturing, robotics, materials engineering and other key training programs. High school students can move on to further skilled manufacturing programs at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif., and its bridge engineering program.
Last year, RapidTech placed 21 rapid prototyping machines in high schools, said director Ed Tackett. That early exposure helps to open teenagers' eyes not only to the job offerings in manufacturing, but lets them know those jobs are open to people who enjoy using computers and creating new things.
Toolmaker Industrial Molds Inc. in Rockford, Ill., did not have a community college or high school training program to draw from, but the company knew it needed new workers, so it developed its own apprenticeship program to bring young people into the business.
Industrial Molds now has six apprentices and 40 full-time employees. They work alongside journeyman toolmakers to learn computer numerically controlled machining, design and every other production element on the shop floor.
“We're transferring knowledge from the expert to the apprentice,” said President Wendy Wloszsek.
That transfer isn't as easy as just putting a new worker next to an established one, however. The company had to identify who was good at communicating why they did something in a certain way, rather than just shrugging off questions.
“Beware of the phrase ‘common sense,' “ she said. A targeted expert must be able to explain to a new employee why it makes sense.
At the same time, the younger employees can help older workers improve their comfort level when it comes to interacting with computers. Industrial Molds uses iPads throughout its operation, with 27 of them used by 40 employees. In those cases, young people used to the swipes and clicks of smartphones become the experts who can teach an older toolmaker.
At Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., students in the college's tooling-focused study program spend 95 percent of their second year on computer-aided-manufacturing skills, said Dean Krager, an associate professor there. Ferris also has received interest regarding focused two-year programs.
“There's this thought that if a kid wants to make decent money he has to be in a four-year engineering program, but that's not true,” he said.
Krager, Henry and Tackett all urged mold makers and molders to reach out to local colleges and high schools to see how they can encourage educators to give manufacturing another look — and help point students in the right direction to begin developing skills.
The word is beginning to seep out there, Krager said.