By Keith Gushard
Tooling industry professionals and a local professor who studies the business agree countering a growing skill shortage in northwest Pennsylvania’s tooling and machining industry requires bold measures.
“One single strategy is not enough to solve it,” Stephen Onyeiwu, an associate professor of economics at Allegheny College, said recently.
A survey of 40 tool shops in the region revealed skill shortages are not only pervasive but also threaten the performance of area tool shops. The survey was done between June and August this year by Onyeiwu, who studies the local industry, and Keith Maxwell, an Allegheny College senior majoring in economics.
A few years ago when manufacturing experienced a slowdown, skill shortages were not apparent, according to the study. In fact, the industry was characterized by massive layoffs of skilled workers, many of whom sought employment in other sectors of the economy.
The study reports a total of 183 employees were laid off by a sample of 28 firms surveyed in Crawford and Erie counties in mid-2009. About 752 jobs were lost in the tooling and machining industry in Crawford County alone in 2009, representing an average layoff of about 7.24 per firm. Back in 2001, more than 1,000 jobs were lost in the industry, while 25 firms went out of business in Crawford County.
The U.S. manufacturing sector has recovered somewhat from the economic crisis of 2008-09, but the recovery remains very fragile, the study found. Manufacturing output is estimated to have increased by 20 percent over the past three years, though jobs in the sector rose by just 4 percent in the same three-year period.
But, technologically, the tooling industry isn’t the same as it was 30 years ago, according to Ken Kuhn, owner of Kuhn Tool and Die of Meadville.
“Today, there are more specialists, not those who know every machine,” Kuhn said. “Technology has evolved with machines being more sophisticated so we’re doing more with less people. But, manufacturing isn’t going away. There’s always going to be a need for toolmakers.”
Kuhn agrees there is a growing shortage of skilled workers in the industry, but it’s not a localized problem.
“It’s nationwide and it’s globalwide,” said Kuhn, who also is the current president of the local chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association, a trade group. “The most common topics discussed are where to get people and how to train them.”
The local tooling industry does face the prospect of the skilled labor shortage growing if people aren’t attracted to the profession. The study found 80 percent of the 40 shops interviewed had trouble finding skilled workers because they just aren’t in the labor pool.
“The shop owners have said ‘Whatever it is we do, we need more kids,’” Onyeiwu said.
A perception that the industry is unstable will have to be overcome.
“We’ve had major hits in employment in a short period,” Chad Kearns, an owner of Quality Tool and Die of Meadville, said of two major economic downturns in about 12 years. “It’s a stressful job and takes time to learn. There’s going to be trouble because nobody wants to do it.”
Kuhn said the tooling and machining industry has been working hard to support training centers such as the Crawford County Career and Technical Center and the Precision Manufacturing Institute. It also has instituted programs such as RoboBOTS, a high school-level robot building competition to spark student interest in manufacturing careers.
“The last four to five years we’ve stepped up our PR (public relations) efforts,” Kuhn said. “We’ve talked with guidance counselors and school superintendents to show them what we can do as an industry.”
Countering the potential shortage
To counter the potential skilled labor shortage, Onyeiwu’s study recommends a multiple point approach.
Recommendations from the study are an aggressive enrollment drive to get students into training centers such as vocational-technical schools and Precision Manufacturing Institute; providing subsidies and scholarships for students who attend those training centers; a reintroduction of apprentice programs at area tooling shops; collaboration between the training centers and local tooling shops; and a need for a coalition of shops, educators, economic development people and government officials to work to address the problem.
The study notes the NTMA is holding events such as job shadowing, career fairs and encouraging the formation of manufacturing clubs in order to spark interest in tooling and machining. It also recently commissioned a study on how to revitalize the industry.
The study found formal apprenticeship programs within shops have all but disappeared. There was a formal four-year program with 8,000 hours of on-the-job training as well as classroom work. That has wound down to only two of the 40 shops surveyed offering apprentice programs. Shops that had apprentice programs were losing those who graduated, creating a “free-riding” situation where some shops expected others to bear the burden of training — “free-riding” on the other shops’ investments of time and money. The end result is shops don’t want to undertake apprenticeship training anymore.
Kuhn said the NTMA is studying the apprenticeship issue on a national level to revamp it toward the technology used today in the industry. The NTMA has adapted some courses to online training via computer.
“The NTMA also is developing programs so students earn an associate’s degree,” Kuhn said.
While there are a number of recently trained young people with general knowledge of tooling and machining, they don’t have the practical skills the tool shops need, the study found.
The study recommends students at PMI or vocational schools be assigned to local tool shops for half of their training period. About six shops, representing different segments of the industry, can be designated as places where trainees from both institutions can gain practical experience. The number of experienced toolmakers can be increased if PMI and technical schools collaborate more closely with the tool shops.
Kearns thinks that’s a good idea.
“I went to the vo-tech and I learned more in a shop in three months than I did in two years at the vo-tech,” Kearns said. “I learned hands-on by doing things in the shop. I’m a firm believer that that is a quicker method.”
The study recommends manufacturers’ associations in the state, including the NTMA, lobby Pennsylvania’s Legislature to introduce a scholarship program for tooling and machining students. It also proposes the establishment of a “Tooling and Machining Endowed Fund” for supporting students enrolled at the Vo-Tech and PMI.
The support could be in various forms, including payment of a “training wage” or a lump-sum scholarship for each trainee that enables them to receive a stipend, as well as purchase books and tools, according to the study.
The study notes everyone in the community — from schools to industry to government and economic development needs to come together to change the current negative perception of tooling and machining as a “dead-end” career path.
The study recommends it should be emphasized that tool and die is a respectable career, enabling residents to become prosperous, purchase good homes and raise families. These feats are usually accomplished without the huge debt load that many college graduates are saddled with upon graduation.
Did you know?
Crawford County has a higher dependence on manufacturing than other areas of the country. About 22 percent of all jobs in the county are in manufacturing, while the figure is only about 10 percent statewide and 11 percent nationally. Most Crawford County manufacturing jobs are related to the tooling and machining industry, with local firms supplying tools and parts to larger manufacturing plants.