David Tilstone, president, National Tooling & Machining Association, is pretty certain precision metalworking shops across the U.S. need help.
According to a 2013 NTMA survey of its membership, just over 70 percent have a job opening that they are having difficulty filling. At least a third have more than one opening. These businesses simply can’t find the people with the right technical skills, the ability to read a blueprint, or just simple mechanical aptitude for the wage being offered.
This comes at a pivotal time because in some areas of the U.S., particularly on the East Coast, the metalworking business is booming. Stories of mandatory 55-hour workweeks are becoming more common.
Tilstone made these comments at a seminar of representatives from manufacturing companies at Grainger’s 2014 Customer Show, a gathering of 15,000 Grainger employees; users of maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) products purchased through Grainger; and suppliers of those products. The four-day show in Orlando, Fla., provided an opportunity for attendees to discuss the latest trends related to e-commerce and procurement management, but conversations also extended to some not-purely-MRO topics, such as inventory management, safety, and sustainability. The MRO supply giant, with almost $10 billion in annual sales, has an eye on providing services to its customers that are easily illustrated in a catalog.
“We are a big company for sure, but we think of ourselves as a local company,” W.W. Grainger Inc. CEO Jim Ryan told a gathering of trade press.
With that said, he shares one of the main concerns of manufacturing officials like Tilstone. “The battle for great people is just getting started,” Ryan said.
Jay Cherwin, senior manager, manufacturing, at Grainger said the struggle to find good talent is especially evident in the MRO area, where seasoned maintenance people are hard to find. Most manufacturing companies are running so lean that machinery has to be up and running when it is expected to be running so that the business can maintain tight profit margins.
“It is a significant burden for these people,” Cherwin said. “What we do is help the people become more efficient.”
That assistance comes in several ways, but it always begins with a Grainger representative trying to understand the manufacturer’s needs. The assistance could be a brief on e-procurement opportunities that help the maintenance person get back to actual “wrench time,” as Cherwin called it, instead of sitting in front of a computer figuring out how to order the right fasteners or motors. Or the assistance might call for a more involved approach that requires input from Grainger’s own internal consulting group or reaching out to one of the company’s 5,000 suppliers on topics such as process improvement or inventory management. Whatever the approach, it boils down to trying to help manufacturers operate more efficiently and save money while doing it.
In a way, it doesn’t stray too far from how Bill Grainger first started the business back in the late 1920s. As industry was moving from direct current to alternating current, Grainger was visiting manufacturing facilities, trying to sell them on these smaller AC motors. But as he made these calls, customers increasingly were asking him if he could supply attachments for the motors, such as a ventilator or a pump. He recognized the opportunity to help the customer out—and expand his business—and the company grew from there.
In the end, manufacturers really don’t care where help comes from.