Tool- and diemakers in short supply ... where does the fault line lie?

April 2, 2014

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The tool- and diemaker shortage may be blamed on the educational system's bias toward college preparatory coursework, but it's likely that other factors come into play as well. These include the 2008 near-death knell for the stamping and automotive industries, manufacturing's lingering negative image, and the expense of setting up "shop" classes in today's highly technical industrial age.

A recent discussion on FMA’s LinkedIn site centered around the current shortage of tool- and diemakers. The problem is expected to worsen with time as older workers retire and not enough Gen Yers (Are we still on "Y"?) are ready to don their aprons.

“If I tried to hire a tool- and diemaker under 50, I couldn’t find one,” said the president of a metal parts manufacturing company in Conn., in a referenced article, adding that he’s taken to outsourcing instead.

Where does the “fault line” lie?

Respondents weighed in with their spins—most blaming the educational system, citing a bias toward college preparatory coursework and a dearth of trade schools and shop classes.

So can the blame be laid at the feet of educators unwilling to focus on noncollegiate education? Does the fault line lie on a bias toward academia, rather than hands-on mechanical skills?

Are there other possibilities?

Worth the Time, Effort?

Some tool- and diemakers have proposed that the salaries prospective employers are offering are not commensurate with the time, skill development, and apprenticeships required to hone the necessary skills. Can employers share some blame as well, or are they just too squeezed by cost pressures to offer better compensation?

Is the problem concentrated in certain geographic regions? Not to incite another civil war, but are those automakers and their suppliers that set up shop in the South to avoid paying union wages and benefits now dealing with the consequences of not having a labor pool of union-trained and apprenticed tool- and diemakers? Editor-in-Chief Dan Davis states in his recent blog entry, “As unionization shrinks, so does the pipeline for talent.” He adds that “as unions have disappeared, so have the development pipelines for many trades.”

What about manufacturing’s image? Have manufacturers done enough to lean and green the workplace to make it safe and healthy enough for the health- and ecoconscious predilections of today’s younger workers? According to Fast Company article, “Gen Y Wants Sustainability Front and Center in Their Sleek, Modern workplaces,” 18- to 25-year-olds want evidence that their employers are going beyond the minimum levels of environmental compliance by embracing all things green on an everyday basis.

It’s up to Us

“What’s the solution to this dilemma?” another writer posted. “How do we attract the kind of talent we need? In-house training? Incentives to pursue training?”

One respondent contends that the cost of today’s high-tech equipment required for training to the manufacturers’ specifications is out of the realm of affordability for funding-starved public educational systems. “The rapacious greed of U.S. companies is why there is a shortage ... Train them. It is up to us to train the workforce that we want.”

Tom Jagemann, CEO of Jagemann Stamping and the cover subject in the March/April 2014 STAMPING Journal, took on that training challenge. He felt the pinch of the skilled worker shortage and had a training room built to train employees and prospective employees. He believes that a well-trained, skilled workforce is critical to his company’s success.

Finally, although it is true that not enough students are being educated to become tomorrow’s skilled workers, including tool- and diemakers, it seems to me that another culprit—the elephant in the room—is largely to blame: job security.

Am I the only one who was around in 2008 and earlier when U.S. tool and die houses and stamping shops were shuttering at a 1,200-SPM pace?

I remember reading about one such tool and die house in a March 2008 Detroit News article—“Factories for sale: Machinery auctioned off to global buyers,” about the demise of Synergis. The Grand Rapids, Mich., company had been one of the largest tool-and-die manufacturers in western Michigan, employing 500 workers in 2001. About 70 Michigan factories had been auctioned off from 2003 to 2008 in the same way, according to several major auction houses.

“At the start of the decade, there were 57,000 workers in Michigan's tool-and-die field, many of them highly paid. When the state last counted three years ago, about 39,000 remained,” the article’s writer said.

When those plants were shuttered, presses were sold for scrap, and jobs disappeared or migrated to out-of-state and Third World manufacturers. Young people, their parents, and educators took notice. So did tool- and diemakers and their potential successors.

The current shortage can be resolved only when these issues are honestly addressed.

Got thoughts? I’d love to hear from you. Contact me at kateb@thefabricator.com.



FMA Communications Inc.

Kate Bachman

Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
833 Featherstone Road
Rockford, IL 61107
Phone: 815-381-1302

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