The Search For Skilled Manufacturing Employee Candidates

Skills Drop Off

Skills Drop Off (Photo credit: squacco)

A common refrain I often hear, and read about, is the lack of a quality pool of technically skilled employees to draw from when it comes time for hiring.  Take a look at any manufacturing news site out there and you’re bound to see it yourself: skills gap, lack of training, unprepared candidates, etc.  Heck, jump to some of the better CNC machine forums and read first hand attempts at hiring that sound more like some demented David Lynch scene than a run-in with an unqualified applicant.  Joking aside, it’s a real concern for not only the larger manufacturing behemoths but also the smaller independent shop looking to expand and fill needed roles.

When it comes time to hire we all hope to land a great applicant, one not only with technical skills and experience, but the wherewithal and common sense to do the job right.  As many of you can attest there are a lot of us grey beards in the shop these days.  Not to say that is a bad thing at all: we come with years of knowledge, know-how, and experience.  But we understand that keeping our trade healthy and alive means bringing in the younger generation of able bodied men and women.  So where are they, how do we go about drawing them in, and how do we ensure they’ve had the proper fundamentals and training to ensure a successful and productive path?

Manufacturing Training Programs

I’d be a liar if I said I had an answer to this tricky bit of business.  I started out on a used CNC machine, being mentored from the ground up; pushing the broom, measuring parts, doing set-ups, change overs, CNC repairs…well before I was ever let loose on a “real” job.  While we’d all love to be able to mentor a new hire (and some of us still do) it’s often not practical.  The costs, the time, ,and the propensity for the situation to simply not work out.  Seems the nature of our business is that by the time we need to hire someone, we need to do it yesterday, so we’re in need of someone with skills and experience that can quickly get up to speed.

I’d like to share a couple of articles I came across today on this subject.

This article from The Modern Machine Shop gives us a bit of flashback to the manufacturing climate in the 1990’s and 2000.  It illustrates how the outsourcing of manufacturing,  the lack of manufacturing investment in supplemental training for employees, and the push for non-manufacturing college degrees culminated in the decimation of new manufacturing talent.

There is a bright side to the article.  It lay out the pro-active moves between a number of industry’s and a local college to reinvigorate the training and acquisition of new manufacturing talent.  It’s motivating to read about a program that not only helps fortify the industry I know and love, but to know that it’s some real training here: no light-weight diy cnc hobby here.  These trainees put in the work.  Read for yourself.

The Modern Machine Shop: Not Just a CNC Degree

Want to continue with that good feeling?

This article from Forbes ( “CEO Takes Action On Manufacturing Skills Gap” ) touches upon many of the same issues and takes some of the same sorts of approaches.  Using Germany’s apprenticeship system as a model, CEO Tom Hudson of nth/works used his own team and resources to create an apprenticeship program that gives high school students hands on technical training and know-how.

From the article:

…providing them with hands-on, paid training in five areas of manufacturing: welding and automation; tool and die making; tooling design; CNC machining; and kaizen, a Japanese manufacturing philosophy devoted to continuous improvement.

These students spend two and a half months working in each specification and upon completion can pursue secondary training, begin looking for work, or become a part of the program.

Motivating to read indeed.  I recommend checking it out.

Your Turn

While I don’t have the solution to our manufacturing woes and talent shortages, I do believe programs like the ones outlined above go a long way toward instilling the fundamentals of our industry in qualified applicants.  In many ways I believe programs like the above not only cut the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, but incentivize younger people toward manufacturing.  Just read Jocelyn Salinas quote at the end of the Forbes article where she talks about creating  air block cylinders if you don’t believe me.  But what about you?  Do you believe programs such as these can help alleviate the poor quality of candidates many of us encounter?


The CNC Machine Shop: Ownership & Management Issues

Whether you’re the owner of a  small CNC machine shop running a mix of new and used CNC mills and lathes, or the foreman overseeing a crew  for a large manufacturer, ownership and management issues are frequently going to arise.  On a daily basis you are dealing with employees, schedules, customers, workflow, safety issues, timelines, equipment repair and replacement, shipping/receiving…the list goes on.  Owning and/or running a CNC shop is not for the tame of heart.  The demands are many, the schedules are tight.  It’s a juggle of the ulcer inducing variety, and all the worse if you realize you’re eating downtime due to poor planning and easily correctable on-site inefficiencies.

Today I’d like to touch on the issue of managing our shop employees and make some suggestions for maintaining a productive crew.

Managing the CNC Machine Shop: Employees


Machining a bar of metal on a lathe.

Machining a bar of metal on a lathe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We CNC machine operators, machinists, programmers, techs, DIY CNC’rs…we’re a different breed.  We tend to be gear heads, persons interested in how things work, passionate about our trade and our skills.  We work hard, we play hard.  Those are only a few of the defining hallmarks of our personalities, and those traits can also make for a complicated creature.

If you’re managing a crew, no matter how big or small, at some point there will be an employee issue: maybe tardiness, attitude, scheduling, or overtime. Something will crop up.  How you manage that is important.  I was over at the Practical Machinist the other day reading a thread about employee issues that got me thinking about this.  Some of the examples cited would make my father blush.

I have a few common-sense thoughts and ideas on managing your crew:

  • Clearly define the workplace guidelines, job descriptions, and expectations.  Don’t fudge on this: the more in-depth and concise the better.  This means all of it: vacation scheduling, absentee/tardiness guidelines, medical coverage, behavior guidelines, overtime expectations, shop security policies (theft, cameras, etc) etc. Present and cover this prior to hire.  Periodically review with your crew.
  • Create an open door policy.  We all have complicated lives.  Working in a CNC manufacturing environment can come with a lot of overtime.  This can get tricky for those of us with family’s and outside demands.  Show your crew you care, listen to them, invite them to come in anytime with concerns, life-issues, you name it.  No, you’re not there to be their personal shrink, but we all have things that come up and can affect our performance.  When you’re in the know, you’re better off.  And, if you do care about your crew, you can find ways to help them out.  That’s trust and loyalty and that goes a long way.
  • Be Fair.  You may have one guy or gal that outshines the rest.  Great!  That doesn’t mean they should be treated like royalty while the others are treated like serfs.  Common sense rules the day.
  • Address the work related concerns of your employees.  If you truly show your crew you care, they’re going to show you that they do as well.  When a crew member comes to you with shop related concerns (safety issues, employee conflicts, needed machine repairs, scheduling, etc.) address those issues.  Do not brush them aside.  Make the time for them.  If it’s a safety issue go out and investigate.  Seek the insight of the other crew members.
  • Sometimes you’re going to have to let an employee go.  Be judicious. Be fair.  Give them every opportunity to learn, grow, and make up for mistakes and lack of experience.  It’s not easy finding the right people, and it sure ain’t cheap training someone.  Though sometimes it just doesn’t work out.  Document the process with the employee, outline a trajectory, and if it comes to having to let them go, you’ve got solid reasoning and documentation behind.  Most likely, they’re going to understand that you gave them a fair shake and they’ll respect you for it.

Your Turn

Have you encountered unique situations with crew members and fellow employees?  How did you address those issues?  Feel free to share your stories and insights in the comments!  Just click that little ole’ comment bubble at the top right of the article.