Supply and Demand
Groups Collaborate to Put More Machinists in the Pipeline
Mark DiLorenzo calls it a “perfect storm.”
By that, he was referring to a number of factors that have converged to create, by his estimate, 400 openings at machine shops across the region that cannot be filled.
One of those factors is the aging of the current workforce and an historically high number of retirements, said DiLorenzo, president of Tell Tool Inc. in Westfield, a shop that is among those that can’t fill openings and has turned aside work, and thus revenue, as a result. Another is the large volume of work coming to shops like his, a phenomenon fueled by a spike in orders to airplane manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus, as well as instability in several corners of the world that has spawned a steady stream of defense work.
There are other issues, too. Large manufacturers, including Hamilton Standard and Pratt & Whitney, that once had comprehensive apprenticeship programs that created a steady of flow of machinists have halted those initiatives or scaled them back. Meanwhile, the machining business still suffers from a public relations problem, stemming from lingering perceptions of dark, noisy, sometimes dangerous shops and hard memories of plants shutting down, impacting people, families, and entire communities.
All that and more has whipped up the storm system currently settled over this sector, said DeLorenzo, and there is certainly no magic bullet that will quickly clear the skies. There are, however, many small steps that could add up to something big — steps like the memorandum of understanding recently inked by Springfield Technical Community College, the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County (REB), and the Western Mass. chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Assoc. (WMNTMA).
The partnership culminates months of discussions between the three parties about the dilemma facing machine shops and ways to mitigate it, and is manifested in several new initiatives involving the college and NTMA members. They include:
- A new one-year certificate program in mechanical engineering technology called CNC Operations and Control, which will include a two-credit internship program to be conducted in conjunction with selected NTMA members;
- A similar internship program to be incorporated into the college’s associate’s degree program in Mechanical Engineering Technology; and
- The re-offering of a course first offered in January of this year called ‘Metrology and Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing’ (the science of measuring), which is designed for incumbent machinists and will likely be attended by 20 or more individuals.
These changes and additions, identified as industry-wide needs during a series of discussions between those at the college, REB, and WMNTMA, are designed to draw more people into the field and improve the skill sets of those already in it. These are the primary goals of a program called Regional Networks, or RENEW, said David Cruise, who is spearheading that effort.
He told BusinessWest that RENEW, funded largely by the John Adams Innovation Institute, is a multi-faceted effort to essentially increase capacity with regard to machinists — meaning everything from the number of them to the facilities used to train them.
The memorandum of understanding is just one cog in that effort, he said, but one with vast potential to generate momentum in what is now a global fight to produce more talented labor.
Lathe of the Land
When asked to calculate how much business is not coming to Western Mass. machine shops because of vacancies that can’t be filled, DiLorenzo and others gathered at a press conference to announce the partnership said there can be only intelligent guesses as to what that number would be.
At shops that handle high-end precision work, each machinist can account for anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 in annual revenues, said shop owners, meaning that the current labor shortage is costing the region perhaps $80 million or more each year. At Tell Tool, the number is at least $1 million, which DiLorenzo would obviously like on his books instead of someone else’s.
He’s had to turn down business on several occasions — because of shortages across the board, meaning machinists, process engineers, programmers, quality assurance people, inspectors … “in every facet of the company” — and he’s getting frustrated by that pattern.
Which is why he’s enthusiastic about the partnership, which is another in a series of initiatives designed to spark interest in the precision manufacturing sector, which knows that its future health and well-being rests with its ability to get young people interested in the field — and then get them trained.
The new initiatives involving the college, WMNTMA, and REB are designed to help do just that, said Gary Masciadrelli, chair of the college’s Department of Mechanical Engineering Technology. He told BusinessWest that the new certificate program may help steer more recent high school graduates and also some of those not happy with their employment status and prospects to look at precision engineering. The internship program, meanwhile, will expose individuals to area companies and the job opportunities available at them.
“It is hard to get kids interested in this field for some reason; we have more jobs than we have people to fill them, which means that we have to somehow change perceptions about this sector,” he said, adding that one way to do that is to get more people exposed to it.
Once they get this exposure, the goal is to guide individuals through the process required to make them a qualified machinist. And Masciadrelli believes the internship program will play a key role in achieving that end.
“We’re hoping that after one semester, we’re going to be able to introduce some of these students to area companies, have them interview at these places, and then possibly be taken on as an intern,” he said. “These shops can fill in some of the areas that we can’t get to, and create different learning experiences.”
Overall, the academic program and internship component will serve as a form of apprenticeship, but one where the teaching process is shared by the college and a specific machine shop — a model that holds some intriguing possibilities. “We think this will be a great partnership.”
DiLorenzo agreed, telling BusinessWest that the new course offerings and internships could help offset the loss of apprenticeship programs that existed in years past, and create another conduit, as he called it, for skilled machinists, complementing area vocational high schools.
“We’re not going to close that gap of 400 people through a few new courses at STCC,” he explained. “But it is going to alleviate some of the strain, and it’s just one of many avenues that NTMA is working with REB on to fill the void.”
Those in attendance to announce the memorandum of understanding spoke with one voice about how the shortage of machinists is not a local, regional, or even a national problem.
“It’s international,” said William Ward, executive director of the REB, who referenced a recent published report indicating that shops in Europe are facing the same storm system as their American counterparts, meaning they are severely challenged to find adequate supplies of machinists.
“Whoever solves the problem will take control of the global economy in that field,” he said, laying in simple yet powerful terms exactly what’s at stake here.
He called the memorandum of understanding a “co-investment” among the three parties in what will be a comprehensive effort to find a solution locally. “This memorandum has some built-in accountability,” he said, “and because it does, we can build a better pipeline of machinists.”
The Die Is Cast
DiLorenzo told BusinessWest that, like any business owner in any sector, he simply hates to say ‘no’ to a customer trying to offer him business.
“That’s because if you do, they will go somewhere else and you’ll probably never get another chance.”
There are dozens of machine shop owners and managers in this region with an equal disdain for ‘no’ who are nonetheless forced to say it. But there is hope that through initiatives like the partnership between the college, REB, and WMNTMA, maybe someday soon they won’t have to.
George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]