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Tool & Die

Casting call

By Julie Sammarco

The tool and die industry is in need of skilled workers

September 2012 - Earlier this year, the National Association of Manufacturers reported 67 percent of the 1,100-plus manufacturers it surveyed have a moderate to severe shortage of skilled workers. More than half expect the problem to grow worse in the next three to five years.

Not unlike other sectors in manufacturing, the tool and die industry is experiencing a lack of skilled workers. The shortage of qualified applicants necessary to take on today’s technologically advanced jobs not only has the potential to shrink the tool and die industry further, it could contribute to keeping manufacturing business overseas. The challenge is two-fold, according to David Tilstone, president of the National Tooling & Machining Association.

“We're expecting to see business owners of small to mid-size tool and die companies retire over the next several years. The Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 coupled with competition from overseas also has reduced the number of tool and die shops in the U.S,” he says. These problems, coupled with a decrease in interest from younger generations also is contributing to a smaller workforce.

A smaller, aging workforce without the updated skills necessary for today’s big orders is forcing companies to take their production business elsewhere.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, takes his business to China. Cook told Kara Swisher, American technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal, that although he wants to bring his company’s manufacturing to the United States, he doesn’t believe there are enough tool and die workers here to handle the job. “It’s just not feasible right now,” he said. “I could call a meeting and invite every tool and die maker in the United States and we wouldn’t fill this room. In China, you could fill a city with tool and die makers.”

Harry Moser, founder of the Reshoring Initiative, agrees. “The country that has the best supply of tool and die makers will get the production business,” he says. “And right now, that’s not us.”

 

Bringing back business

Arguably, the most important factor in gaining appropriately skilled workers is getting younger generations interested in the field. According to Moser, a big part of the problem is not having enough precision machinists, not just tool and die makers.

“The trend in the industry is to have more precision machinists. These are the people who do designing and CAD/CAM work, programming and assembly. Basically, the industry is moving toward having more technologically advanced workers,” he says.

According to Tilstone, this isn’t always easy because the image of manufacturing work has been painted with negativity.

“Most parents and guidance counselors steer middle and high school students toward a college degree rather than the skilled trades,” says Tilstone. “Most Americans still think of manufacturing as a dirty and unsafe work environment when, in fact, it is just the opposite.”

Yet educating parents and students about the many highly technological manufacturing jobs has proved to work for the NTMA. Getting students and parents involved offers a hands-on approach to the kinds of jobs offered today.

“Getting young adults and parents exposed to our NTMA member shops makes them realize it is a high-tech, safe environment that offers good paying jobs and a career path,” says Tilstone.  

Establishing the National Robotic League is one way the NTMA has been able to get middle and high school students involved and exposed to manufacturing. The students work in teams to design and make robots that compete with one another in an arena with the help and support of members and their schools.   

“When they see the high-tech equipment and the computer interfaces used to make components for their robots, they see first-hand that this is a thriving and cool place to work,” says Tilstone. There are an estimated 600,000 skilled manufacturing jobs available today in the United States, according to Tilstone. If the United States can fill these positions with qualified workers, there could be up to 1 million more manufacturing job openings by 2020.

“Once we have the necessary workers to fill the jobs, bringing business back to the U.S. will be easier,” says Tilstone. “So we need to keep pushing, keep educating, keep growing our industry’s workforce if we want the work.” FFJ

Sources

  • National Tooling & Machining Association
    Independence, Ohio
    phone: 800/248-6862
    fax: 216/901-9190
    www.ntma.org

  • Reshoring Initiative
    phone: 847/726-2975
    www.reshorenow.org

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