If American manufacturing is eroding, as some experts say, Lee Combs says he knows one reason: Young people are ill-prepared to work in the field.
“The high schools, the colleges around here, they're just not training people for manufacturing,” says Combs, who owns and runs SC Manufacturing Inc., a machine shop in Akron, Ohio, that produces parts for the steel, oil and gas and other industries. “Everybody has to be a lawyer; nobody wants to make things.”
Four years ago Combs grew so concerned about the scarcity of qualified workers that he founded his own school. The Akron CNC Training Center offers a four-month course in operating the computer numerical control devices at the heart of modern manufacturing. Operators program and monitor CNC machines as they transform metal or other material into precisely shaped parts. Even furniture makers are now using CNC equipment.
The center runs day and evening classes of 10 to 15 students each. The course costs $4,100. “Before graduation, each [student] had a job,” Combs says. His daughter, Laurie Norval, runs the school. Most of the students, who include a small number of women, range in age from 30 to 45. Typically, they found themselves jobless as the recession took its toll.
Combs’ school operates as part of the state-licensed Cleveland Industrial Center, established by another machine shop in 1993 in response to the same manpower problem that Combs cites. His frustration grew out of his steadily increasing need for skilled workers.
“There's so much work out there it's incredible,” he says. “No one can find help. Wages are going up, companies are stealing workers from other companies.”
Combs acknowledges that his experience is hard to reconcile with high levels of joblessness. But most people looking for work, he says, don't have the training or experience needed to do the skilled work his business requires.
Akron, historically a tire-manufacturing center, lies within an industrial zone centered in Cleveland. More than 40,000 manufacturing workers in the area lost their jobs in the recession. Manufacturers that survived, or are starting up, aren't looking to recreate the old days of assembly-line work. “We're not going to employ thousands of people in manual labor again,” Combs says. “We'll never beat China for just labor.”
But Asian competitors who targeted his industry, Combs said, affected only a segment of it. “China manufacturing works if you're making a half-inch bolt that hasn't changed in years,” he says. “But if you're upgrading, you can't get a response from the shops there, and the quality is not there on a consistent basis.”
Combs is hardly a dispassionate observer on the issue of quality control in Chinese machine shops. But he's not the only machine-shop owner who has been lamenting a scarcity of workers. An executive of Astro Manufacturing and Design, in Eastlake, Ohio, outside Cleveland, told The New York Times last year that his firm was searching for six CNC machinists. But after combing through 50 resumes, the personnel office was still hunting.
A pharmaceutical manufacturer that uses computer-controlled machines also found skills inadequate among the vast majority of job-seekers. “You would think in tough economic times that you would have your pick of people,” said Thomas J. Murphy, CEO of Ben Venue Laboratories, a contract drug manufacturer for pharmaceutical companies. But the firm hired only 47 of 3,600 applicants for jobs that pay about $31,000 a year.
And the chief executive of a nonprofit that is trying to promote the development of medical technology in the Cleveland area also noted the mismatch between jobs and job-seekers.
“The people that are out of work just don't match the types of jobs that are here, open and growing,” Baiju R. Shah, told The Times.
Still, in a labor climate afflicted simultaneously by unemployment and skill shortages, Combs says his small school has no trouble filling its classrooms. “We don't advertise,” he says. “Word of mouth is the best.”
Word of the school may travel especially quickly because — in another paradox — CNC training is scarce, despite the need. “Most of the high schools have gotten rid of machinist training,” Combs says. “We've been talking about this in Akron in machine shop groups for years, and nobody listens. Everybody wants their little Johnny to go to college.”
And yet, Combs says, a college graduate who finds work shouldn't count on it lasting. “Who gets laid off first? It's not the machinist, I guarantee you.”
— Peter Katel