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Workforce Strategies

Managing Expectations While Addressing Workforce Challenges

Today, manufacturers looking for machine operators realize that need far outweighs availability. Experienced machinists have become a vanishing commodity while the machining programs at vocational schools are not graduating enough students to make a dent. North Easton Machine (NEM), a contract manufacturer of precision machined parts, has taken a proactive approach to developing their own work force.

Paula Martel, HR Manager at NEM, attended a meeting where several businesses shared their workforce experiences. A few companies were taking steps to increase their pipeline of potential employees while most seemed to be waiting for the situation to resolve itself. "Companies need to manage their expectations and be proactive and less risk averse," suggests Martel. "They expect to find applicants with all the necessary skill sets ready to plug right in to the vacant positions and won’t consider candidates who require training." The concept is especially daunting for smaller businesses with concerns about the impact on production and the drain on resources. But, realistically, to prepare employees to fill the voids, manufacturers have to step up and do more training themselves.

Where have all the students gone?
"Vocational schools began to phase out their machine tool programs due to lack of enrollment after much of our manufacturing went to other countries." By the time manufacturers realized the true cost of doing business overseas and brought the work back to the US we find an older workforce and an insufficient supply of potential machinists to take their places.

"Many manufacturers have employees who are under thirty or over fifty with nobody in the middle to step in as senior employees retire. This means that the young employees need to be up to speed much faster but also that a gap has been created in the transfer of knowledge and expertise from one generation to the other. If the old model of training is no longer possible then a new workforce model must be adopted. "Employees need to be taught in a more organized and standardized way", says Martel "so they can move up the educational ladder faster. Bring people in at a basic level they have reached and then help them hone the necessary skills to add value and become fully functional machinists."

NEM employs five levels of machinists ranging from the entry-level machinist who runs a CNC lathe or mill and does some inspection to the top level programmer who creates programs for manufacture. Trainees from the Basic Manufacturing Level 1 and 2 Program are not quite at Entry Level. Martel refers to these candidates as having "exposure to manufacturing." "They are not ready to come right in and start operating your machines, but they have more knowledge and awareness than someone off the street."

For every trainee NEM takes on they also need a developed top tier person to handle on-the-job training. NEM limits themselves to two trainees at a time. Mentors need to have the personality to be a good teacher, to be open to sharing their knowledge and have a high level of patience. Paula is very specific about who she matches up. "New trainees need to be motivated and have mechanical ability, they can be taught the rest," she says. Systems must be in place. For instance, NEM trainees keep the parts they make segregated until a mentor approves them. This helps to pinpoint and address trainee deficiencies quickly. Trainees also need to have freedom to make mistakes while they learn. "Most trainees who have not retained their jobs at NEM have poor soft skills and work ethic," says Martel. "It is not because they can’t learn but because of tardiness, cell phone use or a lack of motivation."

MACWIC credentialing is currently being used to verify the skills of vocational students and trainees from various workforce programs for Basic Manufacturing Levels 1 and 2. "Being able to have potential employees come out of vocational schools and other programs at a higher skill level would put them in our shop as an entry-level machinist and make on-the-job training go that much faster," suggests Martel. "A MACWIC Level 3 status tells an employer that the new hire is able to function on the shop floor without constant mentoring. Ideally the MACWIC credentialing program should be replicated state-wide for Level 3 and 4 and made accessible to trainees and businesses."

Moving forward, manufacturing needs to be presented as a relevant and positive career pathway for kids before they make the decision of vocational versus comprehensive high school. Martel is finding CAD/CAM students ready for graduation only enter the industry about 50% of the time. She wants to focus on the students who want to become machinists and are looking for jobs after high school. Parents, teachers and guidance counselors have misconceptions about today’s manufacturing industry and need to visit shops and schools to see for themselves that dark, dirty, dangerous factories are a thing of the past. Today’s machine shops are safe, clean and computerized. The work is fast paced and always challenging. Machinists produce a substantial quantity of high tech parts in a variety of materials for all kinds of applications. "We are looking for kids who are curious about how things work and about design," says Martel. NEM welcomes people for tours but Paula also spends time visiting middle schools and shares her interest in manufacturing with students through hands-on activities and videos. "In my view, it would be arrogant to claim that the educational system is failing the industry while doing nothing to help," she adds.

Looking for other sources
NEM hired a graduate (Nick Resendes) of the Mass MEP Level 1 training through the Brockton Area Workforce Investment Board (BAWIB) Youth Works Program then negotiated to allow him to take part in Level 2 training and paid his salary during the process. Their second hire (Jorge Cardosa) through BAWIB graduated from a Level 1 and 2 combined program to re-enter the work force after a layoff. This fifty year old immigrant had held a machine operator job through a placement agency but was not actively learning or allowed to progress. After his second month with NEM his manager commented that he was very motivated and working out very well. When Martel congratulated the man he said, "Of course I am motivated — you gave me a chance and I wouldn’t disappoint you. In two months NEM has taught me more than I have ever learned before. Every day I am learning to become more valuable."

Financial support is available to assist with the cost of on-the-job training. The Brockton Area Workforce Investment Board helped NEM access federal funding to provide reimbursement to companies for the costs associated with on-the-job training. As a company of less than 50 employees, NEM was able to receive 90% salary reimbursement for each trainee for six months. This significantly decreases financial risk for the business, who has also invested the time of a skilled mentor in each trainee.

Martel feels blessed to work for a company that believes in giving back to their schools and community and realizes that things will not be fixed magically by others. She challenges manufacturers to get involved in finding solutions that are so crucial to the future of their businesses.