Turning Factory Hands Into Skilled Workers

The housing-market bust made Mark Johnson a casualty of the recession, as the downturn drained away the professional mover's hours. Now, Johnson is counting on training in computerized machine operation to put him at the forefront of the manufacturing-led recovery. He's hungry for the work. "They aren't going to keep you if you aren't making them money," Johnson, 29, says of his potential employers.

Even with 1 in 10 manufacturing workers unemployed, U.S. companies can't find enough people to run the smart machines that now dominate the factory floor. On May 13, Johnson and a dozen others will be the first graduates in two years from a "boot camp" meant to match that need: a program offered by Gateway Technical College of Kenosha, Wisc., that trains students in computer numerical control operations —CNC, for short.

They'll have jobs waiting for them only if they can help local manufacturers boost productivity, says Jim Beere, president of Racine-based Pioneer Products, which make transmission components. "The same people we won't hire now, we would have hired five or six years ago," says Beere, 60, who employs past graduates of the training session, a partnership between Gateway and local job development centers. "Manufacturing has made a quantum leap over the last five to seven years. Just like our customers, we are raising the bar."

The Institute for Supply Management's index of manufacturing activity, based on a survey of purchasing managers, hit 60.4 last month, signaling expansion. Orders from China, India, and Brazil have lifted exports of equipment made by companies such as Caterpillar (CAT).

In the first quarter, 51 percent of industrial manufacturers said they planned to add workers in the next 12 months, up from 27 percent the year before, a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey showed. Technicians, skilled laborers, and production workers are more sought after than white-collar support workers or sales and marketing employees, according to the survey. PwC also found that a quarter of manufacturers were concerned about the lack of qualified workers, up from 8 percent. "Today the average person that we hire to work in the factory in the U.S. has two years of tech school or college education," says James W. Griffith, chief executive officer of ball-bearing maker Timken (TKR) in Ohio. "This is high-tech manufacturing." Productivity in manufacturing rose 6.7 percent in 2010 from a year ago. In 2009 it increased 2.4 percent.

This February, Gateway opened its first CNC boot camp in two years after companies asked the school to train more workers in this skill. Trainees spend 40 hours a week for 3½ months learning to insert metal, read blueprints, check product quality, and operate computerized machines that mold metal into components. They acquire softer skills, such as interviewing techniques, and ways to boost productivity on a factory floor. Students tour nearby companies, many of which have helped develop the program, to understand the rhythm of work at potential employers.

The session ends with participants taking a competency test to measure job readiness. Government grants make it free for those accepted into the program, which has built a remarkable track record. The seven CNC boot camps held before the recession boasted a 95 percent job placement rate for graduates, says Mark Mundl, strategic coordinator for one of Gateway's partners, the Racine County Workforce Development Center. Starting pay ranges from $12 to $14 an hour.

Job-training programs funded by the government have a long history of struggles. A 2008 audit by the U.S. Labor Dept.'s inspector general found that it couldn't figure out if the goals of most training programs were actually met. Even Gateway's welding boot camp hasn't been as much of a success because of a glut of available workers. The CNC programs have succeeded because they directly respond to employer needs, says Edward Knudson, the executive director of Gateway's workforce and economic development division.

John Lees, 42, an unemployed carpenter and father of six in Racine, says he hopes the training and demand for CNC workers will help him find a professional home. "I want to put the knowledge to good use," he says.

Knowledge is certainly needed. Manufacturers are looking for ever-more sophisticated workers who can operate multiple types of machines and can troubleshoot problems without supervision, says Vince Leone, 44, who oversees CNC operators at a Teleflex (TFX) factory in Kenosha. (Teleflex makes medical devices.) "The days of guys putting the part in, closing the door, and pushing a button are a thing of the past," he says.

The bottom line: As factories grow more complex, workers need to learn multiple tasks. Retraining is the only way for some to stay employable.

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