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Factories face shortages in skilled trades

By Michael Harrington • Apr 29, 2019 at 10:00 PM

AVERY — Everything from a ballpoint pen to crash test dummies and refrigerators wouldn’t exist without welders and CNC operators.

“You look through your daily life and you’d be hard pressed to find something that wasn’t touched by a welder or CNC operator,” said Dan Langdon, EHOVE industrial tech welder instructor.

Welders are responsible for many parts of fabrication and join metal pieces by heating them. CNC (Computer Numeric Controlled) operators are the ones who program the machines at factories by inputting the code to create machined parts for fabrication.

“There are operators who only make a specific piece all the way up to someone who gets handed a print and has to make the entire part from programming until the end,” EHOVE machinist instructor Jim McIntryre said.

But, despite the occupations’ importance to manufacturing, many local employers have reported shortages in both fields.

“There’s just not enough people going into the field to fill the jobs available,” Langdon said. “We constantly have employers calling us wanting additional people.”

 

Causes

Just like the shortage of maintenance technicians, one of the biggest drivers in the diminishing workforce is the aging population of current employees as even the youngest members of the baby boomer generation approach retirement.

“Every place in the industry is experiencing it. Basically, the young guy in the machine shop anymore is in his 40s,” said Martin Harjar, the machine shop supervisor at Humanetics in Huron. “I can honestly say most of the people I’ve hired have been my age or older.” 

McIntyre said younger generations haven’t been encouraged to pursue manufacturing because of a stigma surrounding trade fields and machine shops. He recalls one student’s mother who looked around the machine shop and asked, “Is this really what you want to do?”

The negative perception of manufacturing due to factory closures led parents to encourage higher education, causing a skills gap. For years, high school students were led to believe they’d be a failure if they didn’t obtain a college degree.

“We are reaping the repercussions of the ‘everybody goes to college’ movement ... You don’t need to go to college to make a good living, be a successful individual or provide for your family,” Langdon said. “Your success in life is not determined by the number of letters after your name.”

Both careers offer people a chance to make good money. According to Erie County Jobs and Family Services, the average annual wage in the area is $46,800 for CNC operators and $37,830 for welders.

“They can move up pay scales rather quickly. It’s not a wage thing, it’s a training thing,” Harjar said.

 

Filling the gap

The healthy economy and the wealth of open positions led to more interest in the field. EHOVE’s industrial tech program, where students become certified as welders and CNC operators, has had a waiting list every year.

Students learn the necessary math skills and gain hands-on experience in the field by welding and using CNC machine simulators. They learn to weld their first year and then move on to CNC operating in the second year.

They also have the opportunity to intern at local factories, which often lead to employment opportunities. Ian Greszler, of Norwalk, and Levi Jamison, of Vermilion, both intern at Humanetics, a leading supplier of crash test dummies.

“I’ve always been fascinated with how things are made and work,” Jamison said. “I like being able to fabricate a part and see how everything comes together. It’s an awesome feeling to build something.”

Harjar said most young people in the field became interested because someone in their family was a machinist or because they worked on projects with their parents. 

“My dad would come home and tell me what he did at work and I’d think ‘that’s cool I want to do that,’” Greszler said. “He comes home one day and says he bought a milling machine since I wanted to learn.”

Despite the growing interest of high school students like Greszler and Jamison, many people believe to truly solve the shortage parents and kids need to realize their perception of skilled trades is incorrect.

“There’s a stereotype when it comes to welders and machinists that it’s a dirty job, but if you walk into these fabrication shops they’re clean,” EHOVE assistant director Matt Ehrhardt said. “We have to get parents into these facilities to show them it’s a good environment to work in.”

A factory like Humanetics — which makes dummies meant to mimic the human body as closely as possible — is kept clean and are temperature controlled because of the precision needed in production.

 

Adult education

Introducing kids to the prospect of the skilled trades at a younger age is a long-term solution, but there are plenty adults willing to fill the empty positions in the meantime. EHOVE offers welding and CNC operator training in its adult education program.

The welding program is especially popular and because of growing interest in the machining short-term class it will be offered as a full program in the fall. About 70 to 75 percent of the 600 hours of class time is spent doing hands on learning.

“Adults learn best through hands on learning,” program coordinator Jamie Starcher said.

Starcher said the program fills up quickly and attracts all sorts of people from displaced workers, people transitioning to a new career, factory employees looking for new skills and younger adults just starting off in the workforce.

The courses teach students safety, math, blueprint reading and all the skills they might need in the field. They also focus on soft skills.

“Employers are looking for soft skills things like how to communicate, problem solve and a willingness to learn new things,” Starcher said. “We’ve involved a lot of human resource managers from companies to help teach our students the importance of these skills.”

A lot of companies send employees to EHOVE for specialized training on new equipment, safety protocols or to develop a skill the factory needs to be filled.

The program also requires an internship with local companies, which Starcher said often leads to employment when the course is completed. The courses costs include tuition, books, materials, tools and equipment students will need to start their careers.

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