Advanced Precision Machining

Machine Shop Automation and Advancing Technology; How Are They Impacting the “Skills Gap”

[August 28, 2019] Hard to believe, but the summer of 2019 will soon be in the books, and economic analysts continue to report on good news for the manufacturing industry as a whole and the precision machining sector. According to the latest ISM (Institute for Supply Management) report released on August 1st, manufacturing economic activity expanded in July, and the overall manufacturing economy grew for the 123rd consecutive month. Of particular interest for Advanced Precision Machining’s (APM) Colorado machine shop lies in the report that new orders, production, and employment are all continuing with robust growth. This economic expansion has certainly been received well at APM's milling and machining facility, and we are taking advantage of recent trends by expanding our operations/floor space and investing in the latest in machine shop technology.

Despite all of this positive news, one obstacle our industry can't seem to overcome is the continuing job/skills gap and the difficulty faced in finding qualified CNC machinists. After losing millions of manufacturing jobs to overseas competition in the last decade, the outlook is improving, but the surplus of skilled workers we have hoped for hasn't exactly materialized. In fact, the opposite has occurred. So, what role does emerging technology such as industrial robots and automation play in this ironic story? What other factors may be contributing, and what can be done to stem the tide?

While it’s true that a small shortage of skilled workers existed on the machine shop floor before the recession of 2007-2009, it’s become more pronounced now with the recent uptick in economic conditions. 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, such as machine-tending robots. 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 entered into retirement. Machine shops were forced into adopting new technology, including "lights out" automation capabilities, to remain competitive and keep costs down. Now that the demand for precision manufactured parts is up, the available labor supply is becoming outstripped and capacity is suffering. In fact, many smaller machine shops are now finding it difficult to compete with larger, more established operations.

In addition, the skill sets needed to operate and maintain today’s newer, more high-tech 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 were forced to seek 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 the 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 and a partner began 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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