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Training: Measuring Up The Machine Shop Talent Pool
By Greg Bukosky
Bet you a nickel the first person to say "good help is hard to find" was a machine shop owner. It’s no secret that over the past several years, it has been a major challenge for both machine shops and production rebuilders to attract and keep qualified talent. Will this problem follow us into the next millennium, or is a solution readily at hand? To quote a phrase, that all depends on how you look at things.
We are what we watch
Most shop owners would agree that there’s a declining number of students coming out of high school who want to work in the traditional machine shop environment. Although there are plenty of young machinists who love to work on engines, it seems most aspire to work for their favorite professional racing team. The media explosion, NASCAR in particular, has made these expectations higher than ever. These days, even the guys back at the shop get on TV. So given the choice of "regular" machinist or "Rainbow Warrior" it’s not too surprising the new generation chooses the latter.
Barry Soltz, president and ceo of the Engine Rebuilders Association (AERA), has made education a top priority for the association. "We’re very concerned about attracting young people into the engine rebuilding industry, Soltz said. "This is one reason we formed the Engine Rebuilders Educational Foundation (EREF, see page 73). It’s the best investment we can make to increase the number of qualified machinists entering our industry, raise our level of professionalism, and promote machining as a viable, rewarding career choice for young students."
Getting new talent into the industry is one thing – keeping it there is another. Competitive and loss-leader pricing by other machine shops, mass retailers and production engine rebuilders (PERs) continues to hamper many shop owners’ ability to meet employee wage expectations. In fact, except for core disassembly technicians, average hourly wages have actually declined for machinists in certain parts of the country.
Today, a newly hired machinist will start at $6-8 per hour. An experienced machinist can make $13-14 per hour. A shop foreman will take home $30,000 – $35,000 yearly – higher if advanced certification is achieved (Figures from the ‘98 Machine Shop Market Report, Babcox Publications). These are by no means poverty-level wages, but to put it into proper perspective, a newly hired CNC machinist starts at $10-12 per hour right out of the box.
Start close to home
Bare in mind, the magic solution isn’t always to increase an employee’s wages. By starting some simple business practices, you can attract new employees, keep the ones you already have, and maybe even grow your business.
Begin by forming relationships with your local vocational school. Don’t just ask for a list of their best students – offer to teach a class. What better way to assess student skills than to see them firsthand? This classroom interaction will also reveal social skills and motivation levels, the two traits most sought after by employers according to the training schools surveyed in this article. And besides, assuming that all your competitors also ask for the best students, what’s a few hours of your time if you get to pick first?
If you can’t teach a class, bring the school to you by hosting a career day at your machine shop. According to Dave Hagen, AERA technical services manager, some AERA members have reaped the benefits of hosting recruitment open houses at their shops. "It establishes an early relationship with them and can lead to future employees, Hagen said. "This has been one of the most effective tools for hiring we’ve seen in a long time."
Next, try a few old public relations tactics. Market yourself at all the local drag races, car shows and swap meets. These are the people you need to reach. In fact, according to a recent survey by the Automotive Service Association (ASA) when asked, "Where is the best place to find entry-level employees?," 46 percent of ASA members responded word-of-mouth marketing.
If you have a special car that you own, use it to your advantage. Have a sign professionally printed with your shop’s name, phone number, address and specialties on it. Then pop the hood and polish the chrome. Have plenty of business cards at hand for people who stop to admire. For even better results, pass out flyers announcing a special "free" clinic at your shop. You pick the topic (usually your specialty). The bright young kid that shows up and asks a million questions – that’s your keeper. If nothing else, you’ll attract new business from performance enthusiasts.
Keep the good
Training is an investment that rewards both machinists and shop owners. Machinists learn new skills that can qualify them for better pay, and shop owners reap the benefits of increased productivity. How much to invest in training is the tricky part. Approximately 58 percent of all shop owners report that they offer some form of training to their machinists (Figures from the ‘98 Machine Shop Market Report, Babcox Publications). This can be anything from an extended degree program to a simple "chalk talk" at the shop.
According to a recent ASA survey, the majority of repair shops (82 percent) pay up front to train their technicians. About 10 percent of those surveyed require the employee to pay first and then be reimbursed. Six percent pay for half of the cost, while the technician pays the other half.
A good starting point for shop owners is to register machinists for the ASE Engine Machinist Certification tests. Included in this series are tests for cylinder head specialist, cylinder block specialist, and assembly specialist. In response to industry requests, the tests have been reformatted for both gasoline and diesel engines.
ASE voluntary certification is a means through which engine machinists can prove their abilities to themselves, their employer, and to their customers. For shop owners, test results provide an objective measurement of the knowledge level of employees. The ASE voluntary exams can help you evaluate potential new hires, develop in-house recognition and motivational programs, and evaluate employees for advancement.
Test questions are written by a panel of technical service experts from vehicle manufacturers, repair and testing equipment and parts manufacturers, and working machinists and educators. All questions are first pre-tested and quality checked on a national sample of technicians.
Regular certification test fees are $20 per test. Advanced level tests are $40 per test, and recertification tests are $40 per test. A registration fee of $25 is also charged. Tests are regularly scheduled in most areas. For more information, call 703-713-3800.
Keep in mind that there are also volumes of useful, and oftentimes free, training information available from your suppliers. These companies invest heavily in programs to promote and facilitate training. For example, if you work predominantly on a certain type of engine, contact the factory and request any technical bulletins, videos, etc. that they offer. The same applies for commonly used equipment and parts. You’d be amazed at what’s out there when you ask.
Let’s assume that you’ve done everything you can to train your employees in-house, but it’s not enough. Where do you turn? According to AERA’s Hagen, this is a common concern. "Our technical staff receives telephone calls on a daily basis regarding where to find qualified machinists," Hagen said. "Our first answer has always been to contact the schools listed in the AERA membership directory." Some of these schools are conducted by parts and equipment manufacturers (see page 70).
Other more traditional automotive machinist programs are offered at schools and training centers throughout the country. A wide variety of curriculums, course lengths and fees are available, depending upon your exact needs. The following is a cross-section of programs available.
Extended degree programs
The Spokane Community College located in Spokane, WA, is regarded as one of the most comprehensive of the dozen or so automotive machinist colleges in the United States. Under the guidance of head instructor, "Butch" Reilly, the Automotive Machinist program has grown from a summer quarter class in 1977 to a two-year degree program today.
Upon completion of the automotive machinist program, students will possess a thorough understanding of the internal combustion engine and the methods required to rebuild it from start to finish. They will also be able to safely and efficiently operate most industry-standard machining equipment. This includes everything from basic teardown and parts identification to grinding, honing, balancing, welding and dyno testing.
The usual average yearly enrollment is 20 students. Almost half of the school’s students enroll directly from high school. Others come from the rebuilding industry to receive training in one or two specific areas. According to Reilly, most students come "to learn how to build successful NHRA or NASCAR engines." However, the reality is that most are placed outside of racing as late-model aluminum head specialists, block boring and honing specialists, or crank and camshaft grinders. A number of graduates, though, do currently work for professional race teams, Reilly added.
"The door is wide open for the student who has a mechanical aptitude, critical thinking skills, is dependable, and can communicate effectively with customers," Reilly said. "I strongly feel like our industry, although it is leveling off, is missing out on some very talented young people because of how the media portrays the average mechanic. If people only understood that an ASE-certified master machinist can have a secure, lucrative and gratifying career, we’d see more people enter our field."
Yearly tuition for the program is $503 for state residents and $1,985 for out-of-state residents. Upon graduation, students usually have multiple job offers from which to choose in their area of specialization.
Not to be outdone is the automotive machinist program at Northwest Technical College, (NTC) in Bemidji, MN, where unlike other machinist schools a greater emphasis is placed on sales skills and general studies.
This two-year program consists of nine general studies credits, 16 auto mechanic credits and 39 machinist credits. Students must also complete an internship before they graduate. The yearly enrollment is 28 students, most of whom come from a three-state area. According to lead instructor, Paul Nelson, students are looking for high performance and specialty training.
"Specialists who can deal with customers will be in high demand in the next 10 years," Nelson said. "Sales is a big part of what we teach. Everything we do is sales related. We sell labor, we sell parts, we sell our image, and we sell confidence to our customers that the job is being handled professionally. At NTC, we teach our students to be the best, and we teach them how to realize a premium for these skills."
Nelson feels the biggest hurdle faced by students is the lack of fair pay. "I have employers call me all the time and say they want the best student I have, and they’re willing to pay as much as $6 per hour to hire them with no paid vacation or benefits! Most of my students will make far in excess of that. To shop owners, I say you get what you pay for."
Nelson said the school has recently added several new classes including spray welding cast iron heads and aluminum head welding. Tuition runs about $1,800 per year. Room and board are extra. Upon graduation, Northwest Technical College places students nationwide, most have 3-5 job offers from which to choose.
NTC also offers a Marine Engine program that trains students for the rapidly expanding inboard and outboard engine repair field. This nationally recognized program has the close cooperation of most major marine engine manufacturers, and boasts a job placement rating of 100%.
In terms of giving students what they’re after, the School of Automotive Machinists (SAM) in Houston, TX, is right on track. According to Judson Massingill, director of education, 90 percent of his students go on to work for performance engine builders and race teams. This list includes A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Industries and Petty Enterprises.
"What sets our program apart from others is that the students build, dyno and race their project engine for the class," Massingill said. "The competition is fierce. We give them the skills they’ll need to thrive in the performance world. Students leave here with a thorough understanding of cylinder head flow, camshafts and assembly techniques. Dynamometer testing is also a rapidly growing specialty. Our students know how to operate the machine, and they know how to interpret the results."
According to Massingill, standard passenger car and light truck engine applications are being replaced by exchange units supplied by large rebuilders simply because they can build a long block cheaper than a typical machine shop. "Many good shops have gone under, not for lack of business, but for lack of being able to charge a fair price," Massingill said. "At SAM, we try to give students the skills needed to survive in the new millennium."
Courses at SAM are taught by six instructors and last from nine to 18 months. Programs include training in block and cylinder head machining. Tuition is usually in the $9,300 range. Both day and night classes are offered.
Perhaps one of the country’s best-equipped schools is the automotive machinist program at Mississippi Delta Community College in Morehead, MS. Lead instructor, Bob Clark is an ASE Master Engine Machinist who structures the coursework so that his students can successfully complete the three-part ASE Master Engine Machinist exam themselves.
Yearly enrollment is 12 to 15 students, all of whom have the benefit of training on equipment rivaling that of the best machine shops in the country. The curriculum consists of four courses: fundamentals of automotive machinists; cylinder head service; cylinder block service; and engine assembly.
Clark said that continuing changes in technology by the OEM will require that machinists receive additional training every three to five years in the future. "We stress that the products we turn out and the equipment we use to rebuild them are always advancing," Clark said. "Training is never done. You’ll never find a good machinist under a shade tree." Clark added that precision tool machining will be a huge area of opportunity in the years ahead.
Also gaining recognition as of late is the Northwest Iowa Community College in Sheldon, IA. For the eighth time since 1984, the school’s automotive service technology program was named best in the state by the Industry Planning Council and American Vocational Association.
Established in 1968, over 70 years of teaching experience is made available to the program’s 55 students each day. Live, hands-on learning opportunities are provided thanks to vehicle donations from General Motors, Chrysler and Ford.
The school offers four automotive lab areas and three classrooms equipped with various computer diagnostic machines, as well as computers with All-Data, Mitchell, and AERA’s Prosis information programs. Currently there are 55 students enrolled in the program.
Short format training
Often, shop owners don’t require a full-fledged training school for their employees. Machinists may just need to learn or update their skills on one specific task. Although some of the aforementioned schools offer individual classes, there are other schools that specialize solely in courses that can be taken in a matter of days, or even shorter.
One such program is offered by Cast Welding Technologies, Norcross, GA. In operation since 1996, this school specializes in three types of welding repairs: cast aluminum cylinder heads and blocks; low temperature cast iron accelerated spray welding; and high temperature cast iron welding.
Judy Neal, president, said that students are trained to not only recognize and repair cracks, but to understand why they occurred in the first place. "The bottom line is that with cast iron or cast aluminum, there are some very specific procedures to follow," Neal said. "Those in the industry who are properly trained will get great results. That’s what we try to provide here."
The school has a very popular three-day format that starts on Friday and runs through the weekend. "We’ve been told by almost every caller that the weekend format is the only way they can afford to send people," Neal said. "Shops can minimize machinist down time during the business week." Although there is a considerable amount of information presented, students are encouraged to call their instructors toll-free when they encounter any future welding problems, according to Neal.
Cast Welding Technologies has a yearly enrollment of 125 students, 12 percent of whom are international. Average cost per course is $495. The school houses state-of-the-art equipment including six welding stations, pressure testers, flow benches, thermal cleaning ovens, a spray washer, and CNC milling centers.
Another school that offers hands-on, personalized training in a short format is Casting Salvage Technologies of Fredericksburg, VA. According to Ralph Picariello, president, instruction is limited to one-on-one to ensure that students get training that addresses the repairs and problems faced by their shop. "We provide real training, not sales presentations," Picariello said. "Time is too valuable to waste for shop owners these days."
Aside from cast iron and cast aluminum repair, Picariello also stressed that good machinists must be problem solvers now more than ever. "It takes initiative to find the right answers. With the proliferation of part numbers, machinists will have to seek out reference materials and then apply the answers to specific problems," Picariello said. "The biggest opportunity we have to improve is between our ears."
Casting Salvage Technologies has been in operation for 20 years and has a yearly enrollment of 30 students. Programs cost from $850 for 1-1/2 days to $1,500 for three days. Weekend classes are the norm, but other arrangements can be made to accommodate the customer. The school also provides a number of training courses on VHS tape for those who can’t travel.
The virtual school
Two of the biggest problems that shop owners face when they want to send a machinist for training are loss of productivity and lack of schools within close proximity. Enter the Michigan Virtual Automotive College (MVAC), Ann Arbor, MI, a newly formed program that delivers automotive coursework primarily through the Internet and other non-traditional communication channels.
Because MVAC is a "virtual college" without walls, it can expedite the delivery of information to students in the most appropriate method possible. Courses are currently available via videotape, CD-ROM, satellite, face-to-face interactive television and the Internet’s World Wide Web – depending on what’s most appropriate for the material, the students and their employers.
The advantages of this type of training are obvious. They require less time than face-to-face, hands-on courses. There are no travel costs, or loss of productivity at work. The coursework is flexible in that it can be taken virtually any time, anywhere. Students can complete sections of the course as their daily schedules permit, and they can learn at a comfortable pace. Web-based courses are also easy to update as manufacturer and supplier specifications change, a process that ensures that students always have the most current training available at any one time.
To date, only a few courses are targeted to automotive machinists, but look for this number to grow as MVAC adds programs according to demand, drawing from a list of member/supplier expertise that includes Detroit’s Big Three and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) to name a few.
Although there is a shortage of qualified machinists entering the market, the number of vehicles on the road is higher than ever. If it holds true that demand always increases supply, our industry has reason for hope. Education and marketing will be the keys. Perhaps AERA’s Soltz said it best when he explained our industry’s unique position. "We must continue to look inward for solutions," Soltz said. " At this point, we (as an industry) can help each other more than others can help us."
Sunnen Automotive Machinist’s Academy
This is a brand new school being offered at the new automotive training lab at Sunnen Products Company, in St. Louis, MO. Classes will commence in the summer of 1999, and will be directed by John G. Edwards, author of Sunnen’s Complete Cylinder Head And Engine Rebuilding Handbook.
Three levels of instruction will be offered. The Basic class is for students who already have a job in the trade that require additional training. Upon completion, Basic class students will be proficient in engine teardown, parts identification, basic cylinder and block machining, cleaning, fault detection, measurement, and connecting rod rebuilding. Classes will be kept to 10-16 students.
Intermediate class students will focus on learning to operate machines they are not familiar with, and how to increase speed and accuracy. Additional emphasis will be placed on aluminum and bi-metal engines, including: disassembly; cleaning; fault detection; crack repair methods; head straightening; advanced valve and seat repairs; block align honing and align boring; decking; honing with super abrasives; and the assembly process for OHV and OHC engines. Classes will be kept to 10-16 students.
Advanced class students will receive instruction specific to their individual needs. Topics include: failure analysis; advanced machining techniques; engine balancing; performance enhancements; precision block decking; cam boring housing; combustion chamber volume equalization; and shop management techniques to stay profitable. Due to the intense nature of this course, seating is limited to eight students.
Tentative dates are July 5-9 for the Basic class; July 19-23 and August 2-6 for the Intermediate class; and August 9-13 for the Advanced class. The Basic and Intermediate classes cost $350 each. The advanced class costs $500. Classes will run Monday through Friday. For more information, contact Karen Fisher at 800-678-6636.
Federal-Mogul/Joe Mondello High Performance Engine Building and Blueprinting School.
Fel-Pro® and Speed-Pro® by Sealed Power®, the high-performance engine brands of Federal-Mogul Corporation, will join forces with preeminent racing cylinder head specialist Joe Mondello for a High-Performance Engine Building and Blueprinting School to be held at the Federal-Mogul Worldwide Training Center, May 17-21 and November 29-December 3, 1999, at the Federal-Mogul Worldwide Training Center, located in Ann Arbor, MI.
The High Performance Engine Building and Blueprinting School will include five solid days of hands-on instruction in maximizing the performance of cylinder blocks, gaskets, crankshafts, connecting rods, pistons, camshafts and cylinder heads for street and racing applications. The course will be directed by Federal-Mogul Machine Shop Instructor Bob Fall, veteran of more than 33 years in the performance engine building market, and Joe Mondello, whose career spans four decades and who was responsible for the design of several of the most popular performance heads from General Motors, including the "Posi-Flow" small-block Chevy combustion chamber.
Course topics will include: cylinder head porting techniques; high-performance sealing dynamics and gasket selection; block testing, inspection and machining; crankshaft inspection and performance enhancement; connecting rod selection, sizing and balancing; piston selection, balancing and installation; piston ring selection issues; performance cam modifications; calculating, modifying compression ratio; and engine balancing.
The course fee of $1,495 includes all instruction and materials, lunches, snacks and refreshments. A registration deposit of $1,000 is required. The number of participants is restricted to ensure ample personalized training by Mondello and Fall. For additional information, contact the Federal-Mogul Worldwide Training Center at 734-761-3688, or write to: High Performance School, Federal-Mogul Worldwide Training Center, 3935 Research Park Drive, Ann Arbor, MI 48235.
This popular training school emphasizes the hands-on approach to engine rebuilding. Students work on actual customer engines and components. In addition, all instructors are ASE Master Machinists averaging more than 20 years of experience in the rebuilding industry. Students attending each class are pre- and post-tested to measure the knowledge they’ve gained in the one-week courses.
A comprehensive list of courses are covered at Dana’s 320-acre Technical Resource Park in Ottawa Lake, MI. Aluminum cylinder head rebuilding skills are developed by working on both domestic and foreign aluminum cylinder heads. The course is about 60 percent hands-on training and 40 percent classroom work. Basic cylinder head skills are also covered in a separate class targeted to beginners. The engine block rebuilding class takes student teams through the complete engine assembly process, as well as covering all aspects of block rebuilding. The performance engine rebuilding class is targeted to machinists and shop owners who want to increase their performance business. A casting repair class is also offered that covers aluminum and cast iron cylinder head crack identification and repair techniques. Brazing, spray welding, and cold methods of casting repair are all covered.
Tuition for each course is $995 and covers books, materials and lunches. Room, board and travel expenses are extra. Dana customers can inquire about special rates. Classes run from Monday through Friday afternoon. For a complete listing of course dates contact Bill McNight at 419-535-4218.