Both of the machinists who work at New Process Fibre in Greenwood want to retire. That weighed on the mind of company President Carl Peters for months.
Machinists are in such short supply nationally that some managers have stopped chatting about new hires for fear competitors will woo them away, said Shawn Fitzgerald, vice president of Thomas Net, the B-to-B publisher that tracks industrial companies.
“Companies are protecting them like gold,” Fitzgerald said. “The job is part art and part science. If it were just science, anybody could learn it. It’s also an art, though. It’s something you learn at the elbow of a skilled artisan who has mastered it. As the boomer generation starts to hit retirement age, all that knowledge they’ve compiled is getting ready to walk out the door.”
Thomas Net estimates 2 million machinist jobs are going unfilled nationally, and there will be more demand for them as work that has been off-shored comes home.
Fitzgerald hopes the new wave of fab labs, like Wilmington’s Next Fab, where wannabes can learn metalworking, may help save the day.
He said the need could spike, though, because venture capital firms are buying up small tooling companies and consolidating them into their own private in-house tooling teams.
The need is so pressing nationally that some company presidents are going to their competitors, hat in hand, and asking them to tool for them so they can stay in business, Fitzgerald said.
Replacing machinists is no cinch, even in Delaware where the average wage of $51,720 is higher than in all but a few states.
“Due to the current workforce approaching retirement age, there is a huge pent-up need that we’re going to have to back fill in the near future,” said Rustyn Stoops, executive director of the Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership.
“It’s hard to find good people,” said Gary Allanson, owner of Heritage Machines in Wilmington. “It’s always been hard, but, now, the younger people aren’t getting into it. We try to train people, but I’m too busy to train. That’s the problem. They’ve got to have a certain amount of knowledge and then, from there, I have to point them in the right direction.”
Owners say the best machinists need to be exacting and imaginative and persistent enough to stick at a task until it’s accomplished. And they can’t mind getting their hands dirty.
“It’s kind of thinking out of both sides of your brain,” said Marty Miller, owner of Miller Metal Fabrication in Bridgeville. “You can get stuck thinking just about the details. You have to see the big picture, too. Now, a lot of what we’re doing is on computers, so they have to be competent with computers, but there’s also a lot of drawings that have been around for decades, so they sort of have to be able to adapt to both.”
Miller said he’s been fortunate to find novices from Delaware Tech, through the Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership, and in the nearby Mennonite community, where he said there’s a good work ethic. He said good machinists may take any route to the work — one enjoys computer games and one has a background in social service — but he grew up working construction with his father.
Debra Rouse, New Process Fibre’s HR director, found one solution at a Salisbury, Maryland, high school. She hired a graduate of Parkside High School’s machinist program as an apprentice. “This kid is right out of high school and he’s making more money than some of our operators who have been here a number of years,” Rouse said.
Novices often face learning curves. “Our equipment is different than the ones they’re learning on,” Rouse said. “They come here and they have to be able to convert from what they learned on.”
“One of the issues we have is we need somebody who can actually work with metal,” Peters said. “A lot of them are just being trained with computers.”
The machinist shortage is a supply-and-demand Catch-22. There’s a need, but it’s a small need, maybe too small to support a large-scale training program.
Delaware vo-tech high schools do not offer a specific machinist track, an official said.
Delaware Tech offers machinist training in a well-equipped lab that features the older machines may companies use and the newest computer equipment.
“There’s a cost to keeping the equipment up to date and running and not breaking down,” instructor Richard Mulski said.
He said employers are always asking for grads for $18-an-hour entry-level jobs and other jobs.
Expanding that program and buying more expensive equipment would depend on demand, said Paul Morris, assistant vice president for workforce development at Delaware Tech.
“No one has approached me with a specific need for machinists, but I do agree there is an aging workforce,” Morris said.
Company presidents agree there will be an urgent need for machinists in Delaware, but, because shops are small, most need only one or two.