There are very few problems in business today that transcend industry quite like finding good employees. It’s an issue at any office, in any industry, all over the country and even the world. That being said, there are few industries which have struggled to find good employees the way the engine building/rebuilding industry has.
Engine and machine shops have been consolidating. Manufacturers have been acquiring one another, making the industry a smaller place, and fewer young folks have been showing an interest in making engine building their future career. Now, none of this is to say there aren’t thriving engine shops out there, or any younger folks entering the industry at all, because that is false. However, these are facts that are making it much more difficult for shops to find good, capable employees with the necessary drive.
This topic is one that is hard to cover in just one feature article, and one that requires talking to many folks in the industry to gain a solid grasp on the pulse of employment. That being said, we caught up with a couple engine builders, as well as the School of Automotive Machinists & Technology (SAM Tech), to peer into this issue and start the conversation on how to end the struggle of finding good employees.
Inside the Engine Shop
Not every shop has been struggling to find good help. Specifically, many high-end shops and those involved in some of the larger racing series such as NASCAR, are very attractive destinations for younger talent, and therefore getting their choice of the litter, so-to-speak. However, those shops are the 1% of the industry. The majority of engine shops around the country are in desperate need of additional manpower.
“I’ve had three or four kids work for the shop recently,” says Graham Jones, owner of FastTimes Motorworks in Illinois. “One was a friend of the family. He worked out great, but got himself in trouble at school and had to leave. I’ve had other kids who were kids of friends of friends. I had a kid who thought he was going to be an aircraft mechanic and he didn’t know what the difference between fine thread and course thread was. I’ve had another younger guy who was a CNC operator and it was more of the same.
“Everybody wants to be involved in this stuff until they realize what it takes to actually do it. The technical ability just seems like it’s not there with most of the current generations. Trying to get anybody to want to do anything at all seems like it’s next to impossible.”
FastTimes isn’t alone in the search. David Linder, owner of David’s Machine Shop in Georgia, has also had numerous employees come and go without making much of an impact.
“We haven’t found an avenue to get reliable employees,” says Linder. “It seems like when they come out of the trade schools and the colleges, their real-world experience is lacking. They come out of a big CNC world. CNC is great for those big builders who produce one style of engine and that’s all they do. However, you’ve got a lot of smaller shops that work on a bunch of different engines and that’s not so much what they do. Those boys don’t have that experience. That’s what we’re seeing.”
While some shops haven’t had luck getting employees with a good grasp of machining or the drive to do the hard work, there are younger folks floating around who know enough to be dangerous, but as Jones says, “you have to watch over everything they do. You can’t run a business like that.”
“I know that you can make money doing this and it can be a viable source of income for a lot of people because it’s proven,” Jones says. “There are too many shops across the country that do a great job that build a great product and employ a lot of people. You have to throw a bunch of (crap) against the wall and see what sticks. It’s almost to that point with trying to find people.”
David’s Machine Shop has tried using labor finders, which hasn’t been a good experience. Lately, Linder’s method of choice to find employees has been word of mouth to customers.
“We talk to customers who are in the racing world and might have nephews, kids or someone they know who has been exposed to that world,” he says. “After trying all these things, we’ve kind of resorted to the fact that we’re going to just stay a small shop. We’re going to stay four employees and stay six months behind on work.”
Gaining an employee who has an interest in engine work and racing is one thing, but gaining an employee who’s actually been trained is another. That’s where trade schools like SAM Tech come in. Many shops rely on schools like SAM Tech in Houston to get the next generation of engine builders. However, some shops have had mixed reviews and students’ skills still vary after attending these schools.
“I don’t think it’s the school’s fault,” Linder says. “I think they’ve got the same issue – they’ve got problems finding qualified people to go through their school. I’ve looked at the knowledge and the technology out there, and that’s a killer deal up [at SAM Tech]. The students who are good at engine building don’t stay in your shop for long. The good ones have all kinds of opportunities.”
Indeed, that is the case. According to Kim Klevenhagen, SAM Tech’s director of development, they have more shops clamoring for employees than they have students graduating to send off to available jobs. Students often graduate from SAM Tech with multiple job offers, making it hard for smaller shops to get the attention of that graduate.
“It’s great to hear that people are looking for employees,” Klevenhagen says. “That means the industry is growing, it’s stable, which is wonderful for our students and graduates. We struggle with how to fill this need for all these people who are looking, but still maintain a quality student. We’re doing everything we can, but students typically have multiple offers when they graduate. It’s a great problem for our graduate, but for the industry as a whole, there definitely is a need for better-trained, more-specialized, hands-on employees.”
SAM Tech in particular is open enrollment, which makes it different than most other vocational schools, and its programs are very specialized. Students at SAM Tech get nine months of training on blocks and heads, whereas other programs may only be six weeks.
“In order to do that, we have to stay a little bit smaller,” Klevenhagen says. “We can’t get too big. We have discussed expanding, but we can’t just decide to double the size of our school because I think we would lose some of the quality of the students who are graduating.”
That quality is something many engine shops around the country don’t fully understand. Are these students learning on only new CNC equipment? Or are they learning on many different machines in order to get the education necessary for the real-world engine shop?
“The majority of the businesses in this industry that do automotive machining don’t have Rottlers and Centroids and RMCs sitting around,” Jones says. “They’ve got old Kwik Ways and Rottler boring bars and Berco surfacers and CV616s. Are they being taught on these older machines?”
The short answer to that question – at least at SAM Tech – is yes, students learn on a myriad of different new and older equipment.
“Not everybody’s going to have these high-dollar machines,” says Jimmy Stray, a one-time student of SAM Tech himself, and currently an instructor and shop manager at SAM Tech. “I can teach you how to run the SV in 20 minutes, but if you have to go to a shop that doesn’t have that and just has the CK – you’re lost. A lot of the basic machines – the old machines – are going to give you basic understandings of how things work. We have a Rottler 75 vertical hone, but well before we get to that, the students all learn on a CK10. When they can do that one, then I show them how to run the SV10. When they can run that, then we move on to the vertical hone.
We also have a Rottler boring bar and an FB2, which is ancient. Everybody learns on the older machines because they’re basic and they’re hands on. You have to make the machine do what you want it to do. You can’t push a number or a button and have it do it for you.”
Those are just the hones. SAM Tech also has Sunnen align hones, a surfacer, a balancer, a large engine lathe, a mill, Sunnen rod hones, and more.
“We keep it – we don’t get rid of it,” Klevenhagen says regarding equipment. “We keep the old equipment and also try to upgrade or buy new equipment. If Hendrick Motorsports just updated their machines, then we update ours. When we were picking out our CNC machines, we called the NASCAR engine builders to see what they were working with so we can train our students on that same model. We want to make sure that what we’re offering is what the need is for.”
Students of SAM Tech come to Kim Klevenhagen prior to graduating in order to find out what jobs are available and what the best fit may be for each individual student.
“We sit down, we create a resume and we talk about what they want to do,” she says. “Do you want to travel? Do you want to go work for a Pro Stock team and be on the road the majority of the year? Do you want to be in a shop machining? Some say they’re open. Some say they like heads more. Some say they like blocks. Some like CNC more. Some only want to be in a machine shop. Some definitely want to travel and are very open to moving around. Others are going back home because they have a home and a family.
“We don’t have one student that’s alike. SAM Tech is more unique than other colleges because not everybody graduating is 22 years old. We have veterans who have a lot of experience. Others are right out of high school and maybe haven’t had a job before. We look at all that and think about where would that student be best placed.”
Klevenhagen starts with location. From there, she gets a list of five or 10 employers lined up to reach out to regarding the available student.
“I have a very extensive list/database of employers covering most of the industry and some of it’s not even automotive,” she says. “If you’re listed in Illinois, I’m going to pull up every employer that I’ve ever been in contact with in Illinois and we’re going to go through that. Maybe two or three have called me in the last six months and maybe some haven’t called in a few years, but we still reach out to them. If the answer is, ‘no, we’re not looking right now,’ then that’s fine. We move on. But we’re very, very fortunate that we have more employers calling than we have students graduating. A lot of those employers are repeats. They’ve had our students in the past and they want more.”
Placing students really comes down to location and what that employer’s need is. Is it a head shop? Is it a race team? There’s a lot of things that come into play to make sure students are a fit for who the school calls on.
“We’re looking at each individual student and trying to make the absolute best placement,” Klevenhagen says. “Employers contact us all the time and there’s many of us filtering those phone calls and emails. Employers can also contact us through our website. We really want to make a good fit and want to make it stick. Employers get a phone call from someone first so they can better explain the machines they have and what they’re looking for. It’s time consuming, but I think that’s why it works.”
SAM Tech doesn’t hide the fact that it is a smaller school. The size of the graduating class depends on the month, due to rolling enrollment. A September class graduating nine months later may have 15 or 20 students. Some classes might just be five in a month graduating. Like a traditional school, the September class is usually the largest class. Months like January and July see larger enrollments, particularly with high school students who graduated in May. At any one time, Sam Tech has 100-150 students enrolled.
SAM Tech Programs
What are those students actually learning, you may be asking? They’re learning a lot. SAM Tech offers a number of different programs – Engine Blocks, Cylinder Heads, CNC, Tuning and soon to come Welding. Students can enroll in one program, several programs or take them all in order to be well rounded.
“One option is the block program,” Jimmy Stray says. “Jud Massingill, who is one of the owners of the school, is the instructor for the theory portion, which is about five months. The orientation, which is about a month, includes some basic, necessary math.”
The theory class goes over the rotating assembly in great detail and breaks down oiling systems, rings, pistons, bearings, setting clearances, selecting cams, degreeing cams, and valvetrain. Once they’re done there, they come down into the shop for the practical portion.
“There are other great schools out there that teach performance module, but they don’t teach you performance engine building to the level we do,” Stray says. “For what we’re doing with engine building and making horsepower, you have to come here.”
The practical portion of the block program starts with understanding measuring equipment and testing student’s abilities.
“Can you read measuring equipment?” Stray says. “Can you read the micrometer? Can you read the dial bore gauges? Can you set them up? Can you do it quickly? Time is a big factor. If you get to a shop and you can’t do this stuff quickly, that’s a problem. However, I want accuracy number one.”
Next, students get in-depth instruction on all of the machines. Here they learn the ins and outs of machine safety, proper use and some tricks to speed things up. Students get opportunities to practice on all of the machines and get tested on the machines.
“Once they’re through that, we fit them in with the Dyno program,” he says. “We have a Super Flow 902. I explain how the dyno works and what the pieces of the dyno are and how to adjust the dyno physically, how to adjust the water, how to set the dyno up. Of course, the students load engines and make pulls on a mule motor we have. They see how different scenarios affect the pull and the horsepower.”
From there, the students work on a short block. They tear down an engine to see the process, proper organization and how to do it efficiently and correctly to save time. They’ll measure everything and inspect everything as it comes apart and make notes.
“We cover basic things like how to fill out a build sheet when things start going back together,” Stray says. “Everybody is hands on. We go over clearances with them. We file rings, we degree the cam and we show them the right way to install rings and pistons. Once they have completed all the requirements, they have an opportunity to build their own engine.”
Another program is the Cylinder Head program. Here students will once again go through a theory class and an orientation to get a refresher on the necessary math and formulas.
“We go over everything with cylinder heads – students will tear down heads, install seats and guides, do valve jobs, machine, and learn to blend and port the heads,” Stray says. “We also give the students an opportunity to see how the air reacts and how the air flows. We’ve got a couple of flow benches they have access to.”
A third program is the CNC program, which starts with hand typing code. Students get the basics of how the CAD and CAM work after they understand how to manually type in the code. Then students move on to Master CAM and learn how to manipulate the software in Master CAM. Once they can do that, they move onto actually running the machines and making products.
“In the lab we’ve got a three-axis Takumi and a five-axis Haas students use,” he says. “By the end of the class, everybody’s involved and everybody takes turns running the machines and setting up the machines. It’s pretty in depth.”
A fourth program is the Tuning program, which is seven months long and currently has a waiting list. In addition to those programs, SAM Tech will soon be offering a Welding program due to employer demand for the skill. As you can see, students of SAM Tech are learning a wide range of in-depth, necessary skills.
What remains the biggest struggle for this industry is a supply versus demand issue. There is a large demand for good employees with a small supply of qualified employees currently available. Younger folks ARE still getting involved and trade schools ARE teaching the necessary skills – it’s just happening at a slower pace than in years past.
There is still hope! Shops like David’s Machine Shop continue to get by and rest their futures on the next generation family member. David Linder’s son, who is currently 26, is learning all he needs to know to eventually take over.
“Our future here is solid,” Linder says. “My son works with me here – he’s 26 and is pretty well-rounded. He’s got a long way to go and is still learning, but he helps me on the dyno and does some port work and cylinder head work. This shop is moving in a bunch of different directions, but I feel good about everything. This industry is not going to be the way it used to. It’s going to be different, but it’s still going to be good.”
Graham Jones of FastTimes Motorworks also recently found a good employee who has been a game changer for his shop. Jordan Grunwald is a 20-year-old who just started full time at the engine shop.
“He’s amazing,” Jones says. “He wants to work. He wants to learn and he can do this stuff. I love the fact that Jordan is here and hopefully he’ll be with me for a long time.”
Due to the state of finding good help in this industry, engine shops in need should remember to never pass up an opportunity. Whether they have the background and training or not, a new hire could be the best decision you’ve ever made.
“Don’t turn down an opportunity,” Jones says. “If somebody is going to reach out to you to see if you need help, take it. For the situation that we are in as an industry trying to find help, I would almost take anybody and everybody and give them an opportunity. If you don’t, then you could be missing out on the next generational Chuck Samuel or Jeff D’Agostino. Somebody gave me an opportunity and I don’t mind giving somebody else an opportunity.”