It's been said that high-tech manufacturing is experiencing a renaissance, and the US is getting ready to retool its supply chains to compete globally. However, we haven't been able to give our workforce the skills to fill high-tech factory floor positions such as skilled machinists that operate computerized numerical control (CNC) machines.
There's plenty of evidence that the demand for CNC skills at high-tech manufacturing facilities across the country is higher than the supply of workers with these skills. This leads me to conclude that there's a lack foresight among high-tech stakeholders. We've known for several years about the growth in high-tech manufacturing and the corresponding increase in factory floor jobs. The question is why manufacturers, community colleges, and federal, state, and local governments didn't prepare workers with these skills sooner.
Being ill prepared for the factory jobs of the 21st century isn't something to be taken lightly. If anything, the US should be eager to prepare for the return of these jobs, especially since, according to the National Science Board, we lost 687,000 high-tech manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010.
Furthermore, and as we still suffer from the effects of the Great Recession, America has no time to waste fiddling with bad policy and poor planning. We need to get serious about our manufacturing development plan. Our inability to provide manufacturers with skilled CNC workers reflects our lax attitude toward developing that plan.
Computerized numerical control machines highlight the technological shift that has occurred on the factory floor. Manually operated machines are a thing of the past; they've been replaced by machines that use computers to perform factory tasks such as grinding and milling. Being a CNC operator doesn't require a four-year degree, and you can earn $80,000 a year or even more, depending on your experience.
Developing these skilled machinists is crucial to meeting the demands of high-tech manufacturing, but a CNC skills gap exists across the country, according to Barry Bluestone, professor of economics at Northeastern University and director at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy.
“We are not producing anywhere near enough of these folks out of our vocational regional high schools, our community colleges, or other workforce training programs,” Bluestone told us. “Many manufacturers that I've talked to say they could expand their production. They have the demand out there, but they just can't fulfill that demand, given their inability to find enough skilled craftsmen to run their machines.”
A quick scan of online job listings highlights the demand for these skills. SimplyHired has more than 5,000 listing for CNC machinist jobs available across the country. CareerBuilder lists more than 800, and Monster.com lists more than 500.
The electronics manufacturing services company Flextronics International Ltd. has several machinist openings at its Buffalo Grove, Ill., facility. These jobs require a high school diploma/GED and 6-10 years of experience. Applicants should be able to operate “various conventional machine shop equipment such as lathes, mills, grinders, vertical and horizontal saws to produce and detail a variety of small parts, ranging form simple to complex, which are within prescribed tolerances.” The job listing also says Flextronics is looking for a skilled worker to operate “Computer Numerical Control (CNC) vertical mills, and lathe with Fanuc controller” and to perform “machine set-ups, adjusting speeds, feeds, and depth of cut, to machined parts to specifications set forth in blueprints, drawings, engineering orders, etc.”
Benchmark Electronics Inc., which provides integrated electronics manufacturing, design, and engineering services, is looking for a CNC programmer. “This is a great opportunity to slingshot your CNC programming career,” the job listing says. The position requires working with numerous materials, tooling, and machine operations. “You'll interpret engineering drawings and establish set-up procedures, inspect first runs and parts using precision measuring equipment and possibly work closely with engineering in production of the parts.”
Mill-Max Manufacturing. Corp., a vertically integrated engineering and manufacturing company, has an opening for a CNC programmer/machinist, who will work to help the company produce more than 100 million interconnect components a week.
There's plenty of anecdotal evidence of a CNC machinist shortage, but there are also signs that community colleges are opening programs to encourage high school students and individuals who don't have a four-year degree to learn CNC machinist skills.
Baker College of Cadillac, Mich., has collaborated with Charlevoix High School and several local manufacturers to launch a CNC machinist training program.
Okuma America Corp. has joined forces with Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin to offer training using Okuma’s CNC machines and simulators.
Other community colleges offer similar courses, and I expect more high-tech companies to assist with training in this area as the US prepares its workers for a high-tech manufacturing sector that is built to last.