Aspiring engineers don’t typically dream of working at a bearing manufacturer in Canton, Ohio. The hands-on thrill of materials testing areas, with their specialized grinding and metallurgy machinery—and the prototype manufacturing plant, with its soft machining and heat treatment and hardening processes—just isn’t as immediate as robots, driverless cars, and jet engines.
However, seeing the machinery in action at the Timken Company, and the product possibilities—from thimble-sized precision bearings for the Mars Rover’s vacuum pump, to shined-up chrome wind turbine bearings tall enough for an NBA player to walk through—can get a mechanically minded kid’s pulse quickening.
Thankfully, Stephen Johnson, Timken’s director of research and development, is the perfect ambassador for smart kids who like math, science and machines. Timken has managed to keep him challenged and interested every day of his 43 years there. He started at 16 as an apprentice at British Timken.
“I knew from when I was 12, 13 years old, I wanted to go into engineering,” says Johnson, a trim, well-spoken man who is as comfortable giving plant tours to large groups as he is working in a lab. “I was the local kid that fixed all the motorcycles.” His grandfather, a man who “started at the age of 14 shoveling sand into a blast furnace and ended up as a managing director” at First Steel in Sheffield, England, told him: “’You’ve got to get a practical education. This academic stuff is all good, and you need some of that, but you’ve got to understand how things work and how they’re made.’”
At 18, Johnson transferred to the co-op program at Timken and earned his engineering degree, did shop floor management for 3 ½ years, then realized “if I stay in this operation world with 1960s and ‘70s technology, I’m going to become a technical dinosaur pretty quickly, so I made one of those life choices and jumped ship into the research group."
He had a lot of fun working on helicopters and gas turbine engines. With Timken’s support, he took a sabbatical to earn a PhD in advanced grinding technology, and that expertise brought him to the U.S. to work on high-speed grinding systems. “I got one of the infamous short-term assignments, and here I am,” he says.
The apprenticeship and co-op culture, both in Britain and the U.S., that brought him into the Timken fold in the 1970s started to fall away in the mid 1980s during a recession. To cut costs, training was the first to go.
“There was a very active apprenticeship program locally here in Canton through the mid 1980s, and then that started to disappear due to cost pressures,” he says. “Then we went through this period, for a couple of decades, we sort of plugged the pipeline for the most part.”
Ten years ago, seeing a wave of retirements coming and not enough skilled young people to fill those positions, Timken brought back its apprenticeship program. Four or five years ago, the co-op program was also resurrected.
“We’ve seen significant attrition in the knowledge base,” Johnson says. “Trying to replace that has become increasingly challenging, because academia is not really putting out manufacturing engineers anymore. Even those who have done industrial engineering—it’s amazing to me how many folks with an industrial engineering degree have never even seen a machine tool.
“What I need, in terms of being able to do process development, process research, is people who are strong analytically but also have a good fundamental understanding of the process. And we can and do teach some of that, but it would be really nice to have a talent pool ready for the teachings we can provide, without having to go back to Turning 101, for example.”
For the apprenticeship reboot, Timken had the advantage of being in an area where high schools were already taking the initiative to reintroduce work-study programs, and already had a vocational/trade school infrastructure in place.
“The schools that are serving the more affluent communities—there you see a much higher population of graduates looking at college,” says Johnson. “They have good STEM education, but they don’t’ have the same vocational programs. And when you go down into the slightly poorer neighborhoods and the school districts that support them, that’s where you’re really seeing this push for vocational training.”
High school students in the manufacturing apprenticeship program can work toward their associate’s degree at Stark State Community College, and once that’s complete, can jump into their junior year at Akron University and earn a bachelor’s degree in engineering.
The prototype manufacturing area, where Johnson’s crew makes new products and test for customers, is a “great breeding ground” for trainees, says Johnson: “It’s very vertically integrated—we have everything from the initial material conversion, from barrel tube or forging, the soft machining; we have all of our own heat treatment, hardening processes to get the right material properties, and then on into the finishing and then measurements and assembly,” he says. Other perks include a sheet metal shop, a tool room for making the tools to make the prototypes, and the opportunity to get involved in the R&D side of things.
The head of the prototype area runs the apprenticeship program. “He’s like a big father figure for most of these kids,” says Johnson. “Sometimes they have a tendency to wander off the straight and narrow, and he does a good job of bringing them back.”
The co-ops, who typically start at Timken in sophomore or early junior year, usually come from a handful of engineering programs locally and nationally whose graduates have historically been a good fit for Timken. “We still attend the career fairs” at those schools, says Johnson. “We use that as an opportunity to meet face-to-face and pitch the program to them, as well as through their guidance counselors.”
To get a clearer sense of the career path they want to take, co-ops generally do three rotations during their tenure—maybe a spell in R&D, application engineering, customer engineering or technical sales. “They mostly tend to be surprised by the diversity of opportunity” at a large company that doesn’t have the vast reach or name recognition of a GE or Siemens, says Johnson.
Johnson is also on the hunt for graduate engineers who are familiar with the finishing technology for highly engineered functional components. “There used to be academic centers in the U.S. that were studying the fundamentals of these types of processes and producing graduates at the master’s and doctorate level,” he says. “And we could bring in those graduates, and within a year or two, we could teach them how to apply that technology at Timken and they’re off and running. Those centers don’t exist anymore. The opportunity exists for somebody to create an advanced manufacturing center to start filling this gap.”
Once the experienced engineers are on board, he does his level best to keep them. “What I find with most engineers, particularly those that are on the development side, what really lights their fuse is challenging work and being recognized for their contribution,” he says. “You have to pay them a reasonable salary, but for many of them, provided that they’re being reasonably renumerated for what they do, more money is not a big motivator.”
Part of that recognition is allowing engineers to publish their work whenever possible.
“To be able to stand up at a conference in front of a group of their peers and talk about the work that they’ve been doing and show how it’s leading edge—and then answer questions and debate with their peers—that’s another big piece of the recognition and satisfaction these guys get. It’s simple things, but just paying attention to those is what makes the difference in why people will stay with us.”
Spoken like a true 43-year veteran. “I think I’ve decided to stay,” jokes Johnson. “It’s still a work in progress.”