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Is New Technology and Automation Translating into More or Fewer CNC Machine Shop Jobs?

[December 15, 2014] With the 4th quarter of 2014 almost in the books, economic analysts continue to report on good news for the manufacturing industry. According to the latest ISM (Institute for Supply Management) report, manufacturing activity expanded again in November for the 18th consecutive month, and the economy as a whole is up for the 66th straight month. In the precision machining sector - orders, production, and shipping levels continue with robust growth. The recent economic expansion has certainly been received well at APM's Colorado CNC machining center, and we are taking advantage of trends by expanding our operations and investing in new milling and machining technology. Despite the good news, one obstacle the industry can't seem to overcome is the continuing job/skills gap and the difficulty faced in finding qualified CNC machinists. After losing nearly 4 million manufacturing jobs to overseas competition in recent years, a surplus of skilled workers hasn't exactly materialized. In fact, the opposite occurred. So, what role has emerging technology played in this ironic story, what other factors may be contributing, and what can be done to stem the tide?

It should be noted that a small shortage of skilled workers existed on the machine shop floor before the recession, but has become more pronounced now with the recent economic recovery. A key factor can be traced back to strides in technology, both in terms of more advanced CNC mills and CNC lathes, and tools used to better automate and transform the precision machining process. A decade ago for example, as jobs became lost to foreign competition, laid-off employees were forced to find work outside of the milling and machining industry, or in some cases, entered into retirement. As time marched on, US machine shop facilities adopted new technology, including "lights out" automation capabilities, to remain competitive and keep costs down. Now that precision manufacturing is being re-shored once again, the skill sets needed to operate and maintain new equipment have changed. Laid off CNC machinists seeking new employment are familiar with older technology, but are often now unqualified to run today's more advanced high speed machining tools. Compounding the current job/skills gap is a demographics issue. Many of those who held onto their jobs during the wave of outsourcing are older employees who have retired, or are nearing retirement. Couple this with the fact that many young workers sought employment elsewhere due to the perceived notion that the manufacturing industry was dying, or the stigma associated with "blue collar" jobs.

The bottom line is that thousands of relatively high paying CNC machine shop jobs remain unfilled. Advances in technology and automation, combined with the recent upswing in economic conditions, have put the industry in a rather unique situation. Business is good, but the old adage, "be careful what you wish for", is in full effect. Today's high speed milling machines require a more refined skill set. Tool and die makers of yesterday are not in as high demand. Employers want CNC skills, and jobs need to be filled. This shortage has forced CNC machining centers to adopt new recruiting tactics. In-shop apprenticeships are now favored providing on the job training to those candidates good with their hands and possessing mathematical aptitude. Vocational and job specific training is experiencing growth as young people are seeing the earning potential and employment opportunities available in precision manufacturing. Community colleges, such as Front Range Community College in Colorado, are helping fill demand by offering a full CNC machining curriculum. The opportunities are out there, and the shortage of skilled workers has even increased wages making milling and machining work more attractive to young workers.

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About the Author

Gerry Dillon is a co-founder, current owner and certified CNC machinist at Advanced Precision Machining (APM), a full-service machine shop located in Longmont, Colorado. Before making his home in the United States in 2000, Gerry was born and raised on the emerald isle of Ireland and took an interest in milling and machining from an early age, ranking #1 in the Irish National Apprenticeship Program. In 2005, he partnered with his friend and colleague, Kirk Tuesburg, currently APM’s machine shop manager, together launching what’s grown into a leading Colorado machine shop. Gerry brings over 30 years of machining experience to the shop floor, and is certified in all aspects of geometric dimensioning and tolerancing.






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