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Education in the Machine Shop: What do you do when opportunity exceeds the interest?
By Doug Kaufman
Who says you can’t get good help these days? Well, unfortunately, just about everybody we talked to. From shop owners to educators to training directors, the consensus is that there is a severe shortage of properly trained personnel to fill a growing number of positions in machine shops and rebuilding facilities around the country.
Even more unfortunate is that while the number of experienced machinists dwindles due to retirement and other factors, the number of motivated younger prospects has failed to keep pace. Across the board, even though shops are desperately crying out for competent personnel, there are fewer training classes being held for a smaller audience.
"The part of the job I hate most is having to replace a person," says Ed Davis, Waterhouse Motors, Tacoma, WA. "It’s an unknown challenge – how do you know what you’re going to get? A lot of people put on a good front until you get something invested in them."
It’s not the possibility that an inexperienced person will attempt to pass himself or herself off as a skilled machine operator that worries many members of the Engine Rebuilders Association (AERA) board of directors; it’s the difficulty of finding anyone to even apply for available positions. While Waterhouse’s Davis may dislike hiring new employees, he’s in a much better position than some of his fellow board members.
"Within the past couple of years," Davis says, "a big engine rebuilding operation in town closed. There were about 100 employees – many of them with years of experience – who were suddenly out of work. They came to us, but we’re only so big. We had guys standing in line at quitting time, trying to put their names on our help wanted list."
Although Davis was in the market for some new employees and he was able to hire some people to fill positions and create a new cast iron welding department, he acknowledges that this "buyer’s market" is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Planting the seeds
While the Pacific Northwest may have machinists jumping over each other for available positions, much of the rest of the country is leaving the front door wide open, hoping somebody – anybody – will walk through looking for work. Brad Hartmann, Hartmann Bros., Abilene, TX, says the drought facing his area involves more than just a lack of summer rains.
"Right now we’re shorthanded," Hartmann says, "and we’d like to hire some people. The problem is, we can’t find anybody with experience."
Hartmann’s third-generation shop prides itself on a long business relationship with its employees. Hartmann, 31, says some of his skilled machinists worked for his grandfather when he was just a kid. "We don’t have a high turnover rate, but when someone does leave for whatever reason, we really get hurt."
Hartmann says machinists – grinders in particular – are getting harder to find than ever, and are in huge demand in Texas. "We have ads running in papers within a 180-mile radius, from Odessa to Dallas to Abilene," he says. "We even have personnel services looking for people."
The schools around Hartmann’s Abilene shop have, for the most part, stopped teaching skilled trades. "When I was in high school, we could take machine shop and join the work program, even go to school half a day and work half a day. But they’re phasing that out. Now, it’s just traditional classroom education."
Despite the fact that kids who are great with a wrench are not always the top "book learners," Hartmann believes that these traditional educational skills are critical today as well. After all, he says, technicians now must know how to read a manual or run a diagnostic tester.
Still, Hartmann laments the loss of an eager, entry-level crop of machinists. "We’ve always hired high school kids – one of the guys my dad hired as a half-day student worked with us for 13 years. Now, our supply of interested people has dried up."
For Jerry Ault, Ault & James Engine Rebuilders, Dayton, OH, the problem isn’t with the schools – Dayton has a very strong vocational school program – but competition is so great for the few who go into the program that traditional machine shop/engine rebuilding facilities have difficulty getting the prime candidates.
"We have a very good vocational school and a two-year college that just put a machining program into place," says Ault. "Unfortunately, at the high school level, they start out with 30 students and only about 22 make it through the program. Of that number, because they’re learning to run a CNC machine, a majority will go to industrial or high performance machine shops in the area and they can easily demand a couple dollars more per hour."
Although the Dayton area still has a large number of machine shops and a very strong emphasis on well-trained workers, Ault says smaller engine shops and garages are closing their machining operations. These facilities used to serve as a sort of "farm system" for the bigger shops, providing training to entry-level workers and turning out people with one to two years experience.
Though he expresses reluctance at doing so, Ault says when people are needed he usually has to resort to luring workers away from other shops. "We either have to steal them or look out of town," he says.
"I’d love to hire two more people, but like everyone else, I can’t find them," says Bruce Albers, Albers Automotive, Kankakee, IL. Albers’ shop, a full service mechanical and installation facility that also rebuilds approximately 60-80 engines per year, needs mechanical experts, not just warm bodies to fill uniforms, he says.
"We have a career center in the area, and some of the instructors have worked here in the summers," explains Albers. "I asked them if they had anybody they could send to me – no one had anyone they’d really recommend."
Albers admits that he’s very particular about how the job gets done, and he would rather do it himself the right way than have to redo someone else’s error. Plus, he says, kids have enthusiasm for different employment today.
"I think a lot of the younger kids don’t want to get dirty," he says. "Many of them are more into the computer stuff these days. Plus, people can be a plumber or an electrician and make a lot more money than being a mechanic."
Hartmann is even more blunt: "It’s 105° here today (in Abilene). The shop is 98° and we have welders going; it’s noisy, it’s dirty…"
When the local pizza shop is hiring drivers for $10 to $15 per hour, is it any wonder machine shops and engine rebuilders are facing a tough employment situation? But rather than just affecting this segment of the automotive aftermarket, the lack of skilled – or even interested – workers is a problem to the transmission market and other segments as well.
One segment of the engine machine market that has not been plagued by a shortage of interested students has been the performance market. With the explosion of NASCAR and NHRA popularity, fueled by a healthy economy that spurs racing involvement at all levels, skilled performance engine builders are in demand – and demanding top dollar.
According to Linda Massingill, executive director of the Houston, TX-based School of Automotive Machinists (S.A.M.), graduates of the program are frequently recruited by top racing teams directly out of college. Some teams even reimburse the student for his tuition if he remains with the team for a certain period of time.
Add the thrill factor of working in a racing environment and a typically higher per-hour wage, and it’s no wonder students are opting for the performance training program.
"We were a small performance machine shop before we started the school," Massingill says. "My husband, Jud, trained workers who would leave and open their own shops in the area. At one point, seven shops in our area were started by former employees." These shops, recalls Massingill, were stealing other workers as fast as Jud could train them.
Finally, he realized that all he was doing was training his competitor’s next employee, so Jud Massingill decided to open S.A.M., with the intention of getting paid for the training he was already doing for free. S.A.M., founded nearly 10 years ago, offers a nine-month training program for post-high school students. A maximum of 120 students will take the course; any more, says Linda Massingill, and the performance market would be saturated with qualified workers.
"There is a situation traditional machine shops face that performance shops don’t – wages," says Linda Massingill. "They typically don’t pay as much as the performance industry does, which is why, if students have their choice, they’ll go for the performance."
Of course, building engines for a race team often involves significant travel and isn’t for everyone, Massingill acknowledges. The graduate with a family or who wants to stay in a particular area may choose not to be part of a professional race team. This doesn’t mean performance doesn’t have its place in traditional shops. In fact, it offers a great deal of opportunity for shops to increase their share of market.
Paying for that opportunity, however, isn’t always easy for some shops. Linda Massingill says she understands the difficulty shops face in paying workers an attractive wage. Yet, something will have to be done if the problem is to be resolved, she says. Something like standardized hourly charges for various repair jobs, much the same as the undercar and bodyshop segments have done.
"We’ve had graduates who want to go back to a machine shop in a rural area, but the shops want to pay them $10 per hour. A family man can’t live on that," says Massingill. "We had a shop, and I know what paying employees is like. But I’m up front with them when they call asking about students. I tell them if our student has the choice between a traditional and a performance machine shop, he’ll probably choose performance."
Keeping the current crop
Everyone knows the benefits of training – better-trained employees will be able to keep pace with technology and make shops more efficient and profitable. By most accounts, there are plenty of training opportunities for today’s shop owners and employees, but are people taking advantage of those opportunities?
The Engine Rebuilders Educational Foundation (EREF) was founded in 1997 by AERA’s associate council with the sole purpose of making education and training more affordable and accessible. EREF provides funds in two different forms: grants to current AERA members and their employees; and scholarships to any qualified applicant seeking to pursue further education in this field.
"We have traditionally provided approximately $20,000 in funding annually," explains Jim Rickoff, AERA vice president of marketing and EREF spokesman. "That’s up to the committee’s discretion and it could be as much or as little as the committee deems appropriate, but typically we’ve provided about 20 $1,000 scholarships."
The industry has lauded EREF for making this money available, says Rickoff, but the foundation continues to address a problem that many other scholarship programs face – lack of awareness or interest.
" ‘It’s just what this industry needs,’ people say, but the hardest part is finding eligible applicants who are willing to apply," Rickoff says. "It’s like pulling teeth to give this money away!"
Though he admits things have gotten better each year, Rickoff encourages a wider variety of people to apply for funding. The rules of eligibility state that no AERA member shall be awarded more than one grant per year for any training facility. Additionally, no training facility can receive more than 25% of the available scholarships in a given year.
"This is only fair to the industry," Rickoff explains, suggesting that rather than several people from one shop attending the same class, one person from a shop can learn and then train the other shop personnel. That way, more money is available for the benefit of other shops, he says.
Training can take several forms: in-shop training on a specific repair process or piece of equipment; after-work product training at a shop or in a hotel meeting room or a multi-day classroom situation at a dedicated training school. Each has its benefits; each has its drawbacks.
Often, the decision to train – or not – has less to do with tuition costs than you might expect. "The biggest cost isn’t in getting them there," said one shop owner, "it’s in having them out of the shop. I lose productivity having them gone. Can I make that up when they get back? I’m not sure."
Bill McKnight, director of training at Dana University’s Ottawa Lake, MI, training center, has seen firsthand the impact this uncertainty has had. Attendance is down – way down – at Dana’s training center, and other large manufacturer training schools report similar woes. "We do around 12 classes per year now," McKnight says, "a number down from 60 classes per year not that long ago."
However, both McKnight and S.A.M.’s Linda Massingill praise the commitment of the students who are attending classes. "Probably 20% of our students come on their own, without the support of their employer," McKnight says. "The ones who do take the classes are very dedicated."
Gary Reed, president of Lock-N-Stitch Inc., says people who do come to classes walk away impressed. Reed offers cold crack repair training at his Turlock, CA, facility or any shop. Although he says students can learn in either setting, Reed believes training is most effective when there is an actual investment made.
"We find an individual learns more when he comes to a training school than when I go to his location," Reed says. "This is for a couple of reasons. First, there are no distractions. He can focus on the work and not have to worry about home or phone calls or other things. Next, he feels like he’s appreciated by his employer – if he’s willing to pay to send him to a school, he’ll pay more attention and retain more."
Plus, Reed says, the student feels that he is at an actual school. When I’m at his shop, I’m nothing more than a salesman," he explains.
In addition to the training schools dedicated to cast iron and aluminum crack repair, Lock-N-Stitch partners with Clevite Engine Parts, K-Line Industries and Peterson Machine Tool to sponsor Clarence Clark’s Seminar 2000, a "training road show" that brings all manner of machine shop and rebuilding topics to individual shops.
"Clarence provides a real benefit to the little shops who can’t get to schools and don’t go to trade shows.," explains Reed. "He provides personal consultation about how the shop does things now and ways it might be more effective, and brings more than 35 years experience to the shop."
According to Waterhouse’s Davis, although the Tacoma area offers limited formal schooling opportunities for his employees, he has in the past sent his workers to certain specialty classes. "You have to be sure they’ll go to something that will benefit the business. There are night courses available, and I’ve offered to pay for them to go to classes." The problem, according to Davis: "I can’t get guys to take me up on it."
Albers, at his Midwest location that’s closer to some of the large manufacturer training facilities, says, "I’m more than happy to pay for any schooling they want to do. But for some of the stuff we really need, it’s best to train them myself."
This type of in-house training is effective if you have experienced workers to begin with, says Hartmann. "We’ve used video training from manufacturers a lot – we’ll get all of the grinders in the conference room and watch the tapes and have someone discuss it with them as they’re going through the video."
Another training resource Hartmann relies on are the popular AERA Technical Bulletins. "We use them on a regular basis with our employees – plus, our repair methods are actually featured in several of them, so we feel we’re providing training to others as well. Additionally, the AERA PROSIS system is great because the tech bulletins are in there, and the techs can add our own specs in the system. Plus, we can then pass them back to AERA as future updates."
AERA has recently added a new training method – compact disc – to its arsenal of offerings. The Cylinder Head Reconditioning Service and the Cylinder Block Reconditioning Service series consist of five CD sets for PC-based computers.
Students are able to select the information they need and learn at their own pace. Because material is presented in two to four minute blocks with full-motion video, 3-D animation, this is a particularly good method of training younger students and those to whom English is a second language, according to AERA.
Computer-based training programs are available from several manufacturers and are considered to be very useful in many cases. Like some videotape training, however, you may find they are more product-specific than industry generic.
The power of the Internet has spread to the training arena as well. Various levels of "virtual training classes" can be accessed, often at no charge. The Automotive Parts Rebuilders Association (APRA) has partnered with the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) to promote the NAM Virtual University on-line learning center. According to APRA, more professionals every day, including those in the remanufacturing community, are turning to the Virtual University, as a time saving and economical way to obtain professional training from the convenience of the home or office.
Its pay-per-course method means shop owners or employees are not locked in as their training needs change, but students do have the ability to purchase blocks of training for volume discounts. Several free courses related to computer software, business management and general industrial trades are available on line at www.namvu.com.
Such training, though limited at this time, offers the convenience of 24/7/365 access, so employees can take courses whenever and wherever they like. Look for expanded offerings and similar services from other providers in the near future.
Interactive "chat rooms" can provide a degree of training as well. Available at several manufacturers’ Web sites (including www.automotiverebuilder.com), these on-line discussion groups provide a free forum for technical information exchange that may not otherwise be available.
If not yet ready for online training, the Internet is nevertheless a great resource for locating and researching training facilities and opportunities. The Aftermarket Training Guide is the most comprehensive directory of training available in the aftermarket. Babcox, publisher of Automotive Rebuilder, has teamed up in a joint venture with the Automotive Training Managers Council (ATMC) to provide the aftermarket with valuable, and sometimes difficult-to-find, training information. The annual Training Guide, available at www.babcox.com/atg/tg.htm, is divided into 10 major sections, further broken down into specific training areas. Each listing includes information such as course name, training type, prerequisites, cost and contact information.
What will happen in the next few years? Some say that if the economy takes a turn for the worse and unemployment rises, machine shops will begin to look more attractive. Others predict that high-tech engines will require talented specialists who are as adept at computer diagnostics and repairs as crankshaft grinding. Either way, training will continue to play a major role in the viability and profitability of the engine rebuilding industry.