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Training & Education

Training People for Productivity

By Matthew Burge

Faced with a personnel need far greater than the available supply, Hypertherm has taken workforce development into its own hands

July 2013 - Computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines move faster, hold tighter tolerances and are more complex than ever before. CNC machine advances are an obvious business advantage, but is it that simple? The frequently used expression “advanced manufacturing” sounds great, but where are the “advanced operators” with the skills and knowledge to operate these machines? We design robust processes and implement lean methodologies, but where can an employer find operators for the next generation of CNC machines?

At Hypertherm (www.hypertherm.com), we struggled for many years to find skilled CNC machine operators. Our struggle culminated during business planning in the fall of 2005. Sales forecasting estimated one of our business divisions would add 14 new CNC machines and 30 new CNC machine operators in 2006. Even more startling was the outlook for the next three years. Based on strong demand for our products, the forecast called for roughly 60 new machine operators in each of those years (2007, 2008 and 2009).

"We were fortunate to have the challenge of expanding our workforce to meet growing demand for our products. How well we met this challenge would be determined by how well we could hire and educate a trained workforce," said Jim Miller, Hypertherm’s vice president of manufacturing.

Our machine operator staff in 2005 was less than 120, so we were going to more than double that group’s size. Where would we recruit this talent? How would we train them?

Our training strategy to that point had been on-the-job training, OJT, which took from nine to 18 months to get new operators to the point of working independently. With the business requiring so many new machine operators, this long-held timeline was no longer acceptable. We needed another approach, something revolutionary.

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Further complicating this growing problem was a recognition that skill and knowledge in our tenured CNC machine operators was declining. Several business metrics indicated there was a problem. Scrap rates and machine crashes were on the rise. Process audit failures were rising as well as several other metrics indicating declines in business performance and profitability. Two issues  a large hiring/training outlook and the need to improve the skill and knowledge of new and incumbent CNC machine operators  led us to partner with the nonprofit Vermont HITEC, which is dedicated to training dislocated, unemployed and underemployed individuals.

In 2007, with Vermont HITEC’s guidance and leadership, we opened the Hypertherm Technical Training Institute. In just four months, instructors were hired and trained, curriculum was developed and equipment was purchased. Hypertherm invested nearly $2 million in the initial start up of HTTI, which included classrooms, metrology equipment and a new CNC machining lab.

The CNC machining lab models our production environments in every way, from having identical CNC machines to the 5S markings on floors and workbenches. Every detail has been accounted for to give students as much experience as possible and provide the greatest chance for success once they go into live production.

Case in point

Roughly three years ago Rob Burnham was one of about 200 people who came to a company job fair. At the time he was employed as a dish washer and had no prior exposure to CNC machining, so most of what I was saying was foreign to him. As I addressed a group of 20 applicants, he sat listening to my explanation of the HTTI experience. I rattled on about classes running five days a week, eight hours a day, for nine weeks. I explained that most students completed some of the work outside of class, between one to four hours each evening. I said that, following Vermont HITEC’s model, we call it the “immersion educational experience” because our goal is to completely immerse the students intensively in all aspects of CNC machining.

With an eye to the future, Burnham decided to go for one of 16 seats available in an upcoming class. “I was anxious after listening to Matt describe the program,” Burnham says. “I didn’t want to get my hopes up. There were just so many people there.” He was selected as one of the 16 and entered the program immediately.

Burnham, who had been out of school for more than 15 years, told me, “It was difficult. My brain had to remember how to learn.” Fortunately this is one of the scenarios that the program and the instructors anticipate. Recounting part of the reason for his success in the program, Burnham says “You feel more a part of the education and less watching it happen. You participate in class because the instructors create an environment where you want to participate – they make you interested in the topics.”

What impressed Burnham the most was the machine lab, where currently there is more than $2.5 million in new CNC machinery dedicated to training. “I would have been really nervous to operate a CNC without this type of training”, Rob says. “I didn’t want to be a button pusher, and I don’t know how else I would have learned so much so fast.”

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In order to remove obstacles to enrollment and draw the best possible talent, Hypertherm pays students a full salary while in class, provides all the books and supplies, and requires no type of commitment to repay the cost of education if they decided to leave. The company is confident that its culture and commitment to its associates (employees) provide enough encouragement to stay. In terms of career building and advancement, students also earn 28 credits from a local community college for successfully completing the HTTI’s CNC Machine Operator program. Instructors at the HTTI are adjunct faculty for the college which allows students to prepare for work at Hypertherm while also making significant progress toward an Associate Degree.

Burnham’s experience at the HTTI gave him a way forward. “It gave me dependable employment and a direction for the future,” he says. “I was given the opportunity to build a career for myself and my employer was helping me do it.”

In the six years the HTTI has been operating, it has trained 420 new CNC machine operators who have then been hired by Hypertherm. Although 95 percent of them had no prior experience in the field, today many are advancing in their respective production teams. We have seen improvements in every metric we attempted to improve. Our CNC machine operator workforce is more knowledgeable and self-sufficient than ever before. The answer to my earlier question, “Where would we find them?” is “everywhere.” We find individuals from all backgrounds with wide ranges of experience. What they all have in common is a strong desire to learn, and a good cultural fit with our organization.

With those core competencies, we can develop CNC machine operators or the people needed by our production team for virtually any other position. I have always believed that strong business performance doesn’t come at the expense of the employee, but instead as a result of the employee. When you empower a workforce that is hungry to advance and contribute to your organization, you generally find the majority rise to the challenge. And almost as a bonus, it happens that those we are training include many individuals Hypertherm previously overlooked who now are contributing to their full potential. FFJ

Matthew Burge founded the Hypertherm Technical Training Institute in 2007 and has been leading the organization since its creation. He can be contacted at matthew.burge@hypertherm.com.

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