Over the past year, North Montco Technical Career Center (NMTCC) has seen a substantial increase in calls from manufacturers and machine shops looking for potential students to help fill vacancies in the machine trade field.
The problem is that Montgomery County’s manufacturing sector is facing a crucial talent shortage for machinists, broadly classified as, Computer Numerical Controller (CNC) operators and programmers. As a result, a number of local machine shops and manufacturers are concerned that there won’t be enough younger workers to replace those workers fast approaching retirement.
“Because of this, the local industry as a whole is concerned,” says Brenda Diehl, Human Resource Manager, Bracalenta Manufacturing Group. Diehl mentions that the average age of Bracalenta’s workforce is about 50.
Jason Bromiley, Vice President, John R. Bromiley Co. has similar concerns, as his workforce is about the same age. In fact, it isn’t too uncommon to find a machinist well past typical retirement age, as some companies that have reached out to NMTCC reportedly have machinist working over the age of 70!
According to the U.S. Department of Labor the job outlook is very good for CNC operators and programmers with growth projections over 7 and 22 percent respectively. Given this data what other information would be helpful for students, parents, and career changers to know about this career? “People should know that the work environment has improved over the years, the dark dingy factory floor is in the past,” says Matt Hill, former apprentice student of NMTCC. Manufacturers want workers to know that things have changed. Manufacturing work areas are climate controlled, clean environments with bright lighting. Another misconception may be that these jobs are low skilled, boring, and repetitious.
Frank Torrente, North Montco Technical Career Center’s Precision Machining instructor, explains regularly to parents that machining and CNC jobs are STEM careers (science, engineering, technology, and math). While most of us are familiar with the demand in STEM related fields such as engineering, some may not think of related careers and trades as fitting this category. “CNC is definitely a technology driven field “says Hill. Machinist and CNC operators make components for aerospace, defense, pharmaceutical, hydraulics, the medical industry, and many other businesses that require complex manufacturing or high end instrumentation; this work requires a comprehensive training in the STEM areas.
While not always linear, the machine trades offer several career pathways. For example, CNC operators set up the work holding, load tools, confirm tool offsets, machine the parts, and inspect their work. The CNC programmer uses CAD-CAM software to program the machine to produce the part in the fastest, most accurate way possible. They also set the machining parameters such as spindle speeds, feed rates, cutting tool selection, and work holding techniques.
Hill explains that it is often difficult to find qualified applicants who offer a combination of education and experience. And as in any other skilled trade, learning from someone with years of experience is key. Hill explains, “Now is a good opportunity (for young apprentices) to learn from experienced staff before they retire.” An internship in the machine trades field isn’t only for machinists. Bromily noted that engineering students could also benefit from an internship. “Machining is a good way for prospective engineers to get hands-on experience and a better understanding of the way things work, which could be a valuable part of their training.”
If talent shortages are not addressed soon business will be affected on multiple levels. Bromily states while talent shortages may increase the backlog, his staff works extra hard to keep up with customer demand. He feels this is the best team he’s had in years. “I have a great team,” Bromily comments, and adds, “We now have opportunities for people that know what they’re doing and those who like to keep on learning.”
What type of training is required to become a CNC operator? Torrente recommends that after two semesters of manual mill and lathe experience, the student has enough background to take a semester of CNC machining, find entry-level employment, and typically continue their learning through apprenticeship.
The value of training and apprenticeships has never been greater. The cost of training is currently less than $900.00 per semester at NMTCC, or free for high school students who attend the technical school as part of their high school education. Salaries in the machine trades, like in most positions are commensurate with experience. Skilled machinists make about $55,000, while CNC operators, and CNC programmers can make over $45,000 and $70,000 respectively. These are good wages without the expense of a college education.
Machinists share many qualities. Employers agreed that people working in these fields generally like taking things apart and putting them back together. Typically, these individuals are mechanically inclined, analytical, interested in learning, and proficient in mathematics. Diehl says, “A good portion have machining as part of their family work history or family fun.” Torrente agrees, and wants parents and teachers to know that the machine trades careers are great for students who like to work with their hands and have good basic math skills including fractions, decimals, and geometry. “That’s the kind of student I want,” he says. “I can teach these students everything they need to know to start their career, as the hands on instruction is a good visual for them to learn.”
With the great job outlook and need for high-tech components in many industries, machining and CNC operation / programming are fields that should be given a serious look. If you are interested in learning more, please contact Denise Collins, Continuing Education Capacity Coordinator, at (215) 368-1177, ext. 303 for more information.
To see the North Montco Technical Career Center (located at 1265 Sumneytown Pike, Lansdale, PA 19446) homepage visit www.nmtcc.org.