Skill Shortage

Fewer and fewer people are aspiring to hands-on trades in the manufacturing industry. Is it approaching a crisis situation or is it a rationalization that is good for the industry and will serve to increase shop rates and individual wages, which, in turn, will attract people to the profession?

Fewer and fewer people are aspiring to hands-on trades in the manufacturing industry. Is it approaching a crisis situation or is it a rationalization that is good for the industry and will serve to increase shop rates and individual wages, which, in turn, will attract people to the profession?

My experience contradicts this trend. I skipped college and opted for trade school. Actually, I did go to college for 3 weeks, thinking I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. However, I learned very quickly that college wasn’t for me and decided to change course. One of the classes I had been taking for the 3 weeks was a basic manufacturing techniques class that involved machining a few simple parts. Admittedly, I didn’t know what a machine shop was or what a machinist did prior to taking the course. I remember thinking to myself, “People actually get paid to do this?” It sounded like a great career option for me. So, I un-enrolled in college (sounds much better than “dropped out”) and drove over to the local trade school and enrolled in the machine shop certification program.

Prior to graduation, employers were lined up offering jobs to everyone in the course. I went to work for a die/mold shop serving the automotive industry and got the most amazing on-the-job education that combined my love of math, geometry and computers to make tangible things. For me, it was very rewarding.

It amazes me how few people know anything about manufacturing, even though our world revolves around it. I want to tell everyone, “Look around you—everything you use was manufactured.” Manufacturing is the largest industry in the world, and no other industry exists without the manufactured products that enable it.

Had it not been for stumbling into that class when I dipped my toe into the college water, I am sure I would have missed out on a wonderful career. There are many young people today who are missing out on a great career option because they don’t know how unique and rewarding a manufacturing career can be. All the kids who are spending their days gaming on Xbox or PlayStation would probably be great at using a CAM system to produce complex tool paths and run CNC machines. It’s kind of like the ultimate video game—you have to make a cutter run around a piece of 3D geometry following all the rules related to part orientation. You must choose the right cutter, depth of cut and avoid the hold-down clamps. Then, the final challenge is to cut the part and have it pass the first article inspection. How can kids not be all over that?

The one question that lingers is that of salary. The skills needed may not match up with the pay provided. Being a good machinist involves being skillful in math, geometry and computers, and one must have mechanical aptitude. With all the skills required, why do auto mechanics, plumbers and electricians make more money, according to employee compensation surveys?

Perhaps the relatively low pay is the reason for the shortage of people interested in manufacturing careers. Or, is it that people aren’t aware of what being a machinist means today? There are two sides to the argument. Some feel that if more people went into the trade, it would serve to further erode the wages because of increased competition for jobs. Others argue that if the pay were better and the people with the right skills flocked to the trade, productivity and innovation would skyrocket, allowing companies to generate record profits. I certainly have heard more questions than answers, but I know for sure that a solid manufacturing base is critical for us to maintain our quality of life, and that base can’t sustain itself without talented people entering the trade.

Mitch Free is president and CEO of MFG.com, Atlanta, Georgia. He can be reached at (770) 444-9686, ext. 2946 or at mfree@mfg.com