Small Steps Make Huge Difference When Promoting Manufacturing Careers

Aug. 14, 2008
Climax Portable Machine Tools helps close the gap between the perception and reality of manufacturing careers.

With half the nation's 14 million manufacturing workers nearing retirement, 90% of America's manufacturers say they are struggling to find qualified workers. Unfortunately, there is a misconception that manufacturing jobs in the U.S. are dead-end jobs requiring little or no skills. Attracting students to many of the highly skilled careers in manufacturing and machining will require a concerted effort to completely change the perception of what these jobs entail and the living wage jobs they provide.

Machine Tool Manufacturer Takes Hands-on Approach

Climax Portable Machine Tools, headquartered in Oregon, has had a 22% compound annual growth rate the past five years in a row. This is due to significantly increased demand worldwide for their consulting services, training and precision machining tools used in the on-site repair and maintenance of equipment in such diverse industries as mining, construction, power generation (including wind, oil and gas, and nuclear) and shipbuilding.

To meet explosive demand for their standard and custom machining tools, we doubled our facilities, added two more shifts and offered their machinists overtime. We used principles of lean manufacturing to streamline our manufacturing and assembly processes, and cross-trained employees. These steps significantly cut down the backlog of orders that kept coming in. At the same time it was streamlining internal processes, the company also began recruiting engineers and experienced machinists, and found itself struggling to hire the much-needed 25 new employees with five- to 10 years of experience, and also wondering how they would fill the openings for 20 more employees planned for next year.

"We have a vibrant, growing company, a great internal culture, and offer good pay and benefits but couldn't get enough help. Our customers are also having the same challenges, and it seemed that we were all recruiting from the same talent pool -- swapping employees, rather than seeing new machinists and engineers enter the manufacturing field. That's when we had an 'AH-HA' moment," says Geoff Gilmore, president and CEO of Climax. "We realized that it was up to us to 'own the problem' of changing the perception of manufacturing careers, so we started at the local high school and college level in order to attract students to careers in manufacturing and machining and to fill the future pipeline of skilled workers."

Partnering with Schools to Promote Manufacturing

We began actively working on a plan for outreach to local and regional schools, community colleges and a four-year college in the Oregon as well as a technical school in Washington State to change the perception of what it means to work in the manufacturing industry.

Climax's VP of HR Joni George -- whose title is actually Chief Cultural Officer and carries the vision of "creating a culture where passionate ambassadors create possibilities" -- set up apprenticeships with their most senior journey levels and work/study programs for students. She takes machinists along when the company participates in recruitment fares and career days so they can describe their career, impact of their work and answer any questions from prospective employees about the work they do.

We regularly invites high-school students, counselors and parents to tour our facility where they are given a first-hand look at a day in the life of a machinist, engineer and all of the other professions within the organization. Students also learn about some of the major projects the company's tools were designed and used for such as repairing the Hoover Dam, machining wind towers, a seismic upgrade of the Golden Gate Bridge and repairing critical valves at power plants worldwide.

The students are given presentations on the soft and hard skills needed in today's manufacturing environment such as computer skills and the need for precision, problem solving and creativity, the ability to work as a team player, and passion and pride in their work. They are given a picture of a machinist as an artisan whose career path includes roles as journey level and trainers as well as in management. Even if students don't choose careers as a machinist or in manufacturing management, we believe that they will still benefit from these presentations because these same qualities are needed in other industries as well.

Our company has gone a step further, though. In addition to tuition reimbursement, we are also inviting students to become part of a committee focused on creating the kind of working environment that will attract and retain younger workers.

Employees as Company Ambassadors and Coaches

Volunteerism is a significant part of the company's culture. As a result, many of their employees act as ambassadors for the company, volunteering their time at local schools. Several engineers and machinists have regularly gone into middle and high schools to not only press the case for bringing back metal shops, but to get kids excited about engineering and machining careers in general.

Recently, Garrett Headrick, a lead engineer who designs portable machine tools, worked with 20 students at Mountain View Middle School in a Discovery Science program, and helped them make model rockets. Garrett shows them through hands on training that engineering can be fun and rewarding.

Other machinists work with community college instructors to assist them in teaching the newest machining techniques. They occupy seats on advisory boards at the Perry Technical Institute in Washington State, and at Portland-, Chemeketa- and Linn-Benton Community Colleges in Oregon to advise them on machining trends in the industries and influence curricula planning. During a recent advisory board meeting, our company recommended that students enrolled in machining and manufacturing courses also take business classes because these students must see the need and the connection between the work they do in repairing and maintaining equipment and the direct role they play in their employers' profitability.

Within the next five to ten years, the number of skilled workers will shrink considerably as the ageing workforce continues to retire. This is another area where we have seen that flexibility pays off by utilizing retirees. Some long-term employees who have retired continue to work a flexible schedule at our company. Their expertise and coaching is just want the new workforce needs to be successful. It's a triple win for the retiree who wants to stay active, for the new worker who needs mentoring, and for the company that retains the skills needed to meet the ever changing business requirements. We actually had an employee who retired one day, attended his retirement party and returned to work part-time the following day.

Joining Forces with Likeminded Organization

We have joined other companies in the Pacific Northwest as part of a coalition to promote careers in manufacturing. The mid-Willamette Metals Consortium is a group of manufacturing companies that work together to promote the needs of the metals industry for a more highly skilled workforce. The consortium recently produced a CD that's used as a leave-behind for students investigating careers involving work with metals.

As a result of these efforts, enrollment in machining and metalworking classes is going up in this region. In addition, word-of-mouth and raising awareness for the company through outreach to local media also has helped their recruitment efforts.

The Workforce of the Future

Within the last year since the outreach program started, the company has seen an increase in qualified people applying for positions. 52 new employees were hired for positions throughout the company, including 15 new machinists. Turnover remains low because the company's employees are valued and openly encouraged to take an active role in the running of the company, to contribute their ideas, and to participate in meetings geared to identifying new business opportunities or best practices for the company. Teams comprised of employees from each department are responsible for making monthly presentations on the state of the business, and there are bonuses issued to employees who can recruit new workers. Employees created the design layout for the facility expansion using lean principles from their earlier in-house classes.

The manufacturing industry will be faced with the challenging task of having to replace skilled workers who are retiring and recruiting new workers. Raising awareness for the important innovations that have resulted from those who work in manufacturing, the living wages these jobs provide, and opportunities for advancement will play a key role in attracting students and educating parents and school counselors about these careers. Ultimately, partnerships among companies, schools and the government will go a long way in filling the pipeline for skilled workers, providing value to the companies, their communities and our nation.

Andy Becker is Vice President of Business Development at Climax Portable Machine Tools. Headquartered in Oregon, Climax Portable Machine Tools, Inc. is a provider of comprehensive, on-site machining solutions. The company offers specialized engineering consulting services, customized training programs and a full line of portable machine tools enabling customers to perform on-site machining for applications in the power generation, shipbuilding, and service and engineering sectors.

Interested in information related to this topic? Subscribe to our weekly Value-chain eNewsletter.

Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of IndustryWeek, create an account today!