Narrowing the Skills Gap for Successful American Manufacturing

Narrowing the Skills Gap for Successful American Manufacturing

May 31, 2013
The company's program was so successful  that not only has it met the company's  workforce needs, but they have opened the institute to other employers in an effort to improve the competency of CNC machine operators regionally.

Stories about high unemployment permeate news reports, so you’d think it would be easy for manufacturers like Hypertherm to find the help we need. Unfortunately, as many companies know, that isn’t necessarily the case.

We’ve been grappling with the problem of finding skilled machinists to work our advanced CNC machines for years. This is despite our consistently being named one of the best employers in the state with a less than five percent voluntary turnover rate.

Granted, we do have stringent requirements. Our CNC machines are used to produce small consumable parts that are inserted into the metal cutting torches produced by Hypertherm. These consumables channel plasma, which is several times hotter than the surface of the sun, through the torch and to the work piece being cut. They withstand a lot of heat and need to be carefully engineered and manufactured to last a good amount of time. Hypertherm prides itself on making the longest lasting consumables on the market. To do this though, the consumables need to be precision machined to tolerance levels eight times narrower than a human hair.

Though it was always difficult to find machinists skilled enough to hold those extremely tight tolerances, the problem reached a critical point in 2006. Our managers projected that we’d need to add more than 180 new operators to our workforce during the next three years if we were to have any hope of meeting demand for our consumables. At the time, we had just 120 operators on our team. This meant, we were faced with having to more than double the number of operators on our floor.

We didn’t have a solution at the time, but knew one thing for sure: our current process of having a just hired machine operator shadow a more experienced Hypertherm associate, as we call our employees here, wasn’t going to work. It just wasn’t an efficient process.

Not only did it take months, if not years, to get an operator up to speed, but when that operator finally did get up to speed, the knowledge they gained tended to be more superficial. The operator knew how to machine a part under ideal circumstances on the machine they trained on, but couldn’t operate other machines, make adjustments or troubleshoot issues if they arose.

We explored many options as we tried to figure out how to meet our workforce challenges. We even considered moving operations outside North America, but because Hypertherm is committed to manufacturing in the United States, and specifically New Hampshire, that option never really made it off the table.

Creating an Internal Training Center

We finally settled upon opening our own school to train the workers we desperately needed but couldn’t find, and in 2007—after much work and a large capital investment—I’m proud to say we opened the Hypertherm Technical Training Institute.

With the help of Vermont HITEC, a nonprofit organization in neighboring Vermont that had successfully run training programs, we developed an immersion styled education program designed to take people who had a good attitude and an aptitude to learn, but not necessarily machining experience, and turn them into the skilled machinists we needed in just nine weeks.

The program is unique for a number of reasons. For one, students accepted into the program are guaranteed jobs at Hypertherm and paid full wages during training. This allows people who may not have otherwise been able to go through such a program because they couldn’t afford to go nine weeks without a paycheck, to participate.  Not only did it meet our need for help, it provided an opportunity for unemployed and underemployed people to have a brighter future.

Our program was further improved in 2009 when we formed a partnership with the New Hampshire community college system that enabled students who successfully completed the training program to earn college credit toward an Associate’s degree and a certificate in Machine Tool Technology. The 28 credits earned during Hypertherm’s nine week program means associates are more than half way toward earning a degree. They can then choose to continue their education with Hypertherm covering the cost of going back to school through our sponsored degree program.

Five years later, the Hypertherm program is so successful we’ve not only met our workforce needs, but have been able to open our training institute to other employers in an effort to improve the competency of CNC machine operators regionally.

We aren’t out of the woods yet though. When I first founded Hypertherm in the late sixties, manufacturing jobs and the people to fill them were plentiful. Manufacturing was actually growing at the time. Of course, that all changed in the 80’s and 90’s with the exodus of jobs to Asia. Not only did we lose jobs, but the infrastructure to support those jobs.

I can recall a time when there were dozens of suppliers in our backyard making the printed circuit boards and components found in our metal cutting systems. Those suppliers were never more than a short drive away. Today however, those companies—and people—are no longer there. The suppliers have closed up shop and the people who once worked there have either retired, or if they were young enough, have been retrained to do other work. This means instead of sourcing those products locally, we’re forced to either bring the production of those products in-house or go farther afield. 

Unfortunately, the skills shortage isn’t expected to get better any time soon. On the contrary, the prevailing thought is that an aging work force will cause the problem to grow worse over the next two to four years.

What does this mean to U.S. manufacturers?  It may be that there is no one answer. The strategy for success may vary among companies and manufacturers. Establishing our own training institute was certainly a step in the right direction for Hypertherm, but we know we have to do more. As manufacturers we need to band together in support of vocational education and programs like Skills USA. It’s also important that we support the STEM initiative and the push to help today’s students embrace engineering, as I did so many years ago.

Dick Couch is CEO and founder of Hypertherm, a manufacturer of cutting products for use in a variety of industries such as shipbuilding, oil and gas, heavy equipment, structural steel, and manufacturing.

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