Hey buddy, can you spare a machinist?

At a recent conference, a colleague from Chicago-based machine shop Bley LLC showed me pictures of the huge parts his team manufacturers. A gearbox front housing with torque arms, for instance, appeares over 6-ft in diameter. Main shafts are some 6-ft long and 2-ft in diameter with 5-ft diameter flanges on one end. Company manager Mike Milbratz says wind energy may be the only industry that needs parts at automotive cost and aerospace quality– inexpensive and high precision. His remark on quality also means wind turbine parts must be made or repaired by trained and skilled machinists. So how do you find such people?

“It’s a challenge,” he sighed. “If you know any send them over,” he added only half kidding. He explained that the most difficult positions to fill are for machine set-up tasks because of the years of experience needed. Milbratz says his shop keeps an almost permanent “help wanted” sign out. The situation is likely to worsen as older skilled labor begin to retire.

Deborah Picchione, HR manager for the Ohio region of machining firm Heroux Devtek echoes Milbratz comments, pointing out that the shortage for skilled metal machinists and manufacturing engineers is widespread. “Right now we have positions for manufacturing engineers, quality engineers, and lean manufacturing experts,” she says. All four of Picchione’s facilities carry on with unfilled skilled machining positions. In response, she keeps job ads on Career Builder, Monster.com, Linkedin, and other sites, and maintains contacts at nearby colleges and vocational schools.

Milbratz says his shop has a small training program to move people up the ranks, but a 60-person company cannot afford to train people in the basics. He relies on local community colleges for recruits, and hunts for talent at job fairs. Picchione says her company started an internship with computer-based training in CNC machining and print reading for new hires before they graduate to the shop floor and OJT. Starting salaries for people right out of a community college is about $15/hr, about $30,000/yr, and top out at least $27/hr. and above. Picchione points out that overtime, bonuses, tuition reimbursement, and benefits make a six-figure income possible.

So why in an era of over 9% unemployment (and probably more) does a career with decent pay, almost guaranteed employment, and respect, go begging for workers? There are several theories. One is that the skilled trades are not promoted in schools anymore. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, high schools had machine and metal shops along with drafting classes. These are mostly gone. The emphasis is on college. Those who do graduate from vocational schools snatched up quickly or do not stay with the trade. Maybe kids don’t want to get their hands dirty? Maybe they don’t realize the machine tool is a computer peripheral, and although the job can get dirty, it’s a lot cleaner than it once was?

The obvious solution to the shortage is to once again promote the trades in high school because not everyone is meant for college. Most students don’t know such a career exists. And tell girls, too. One HR manager says her most productive machinist is a woman.

Dean Kamen, a prolific inventor, observed that we get what we celebrate. This nation celebrates sports and entertainment figures, so there is great interest those careers. The irony is that none of them would be possible if someone had not first manufactured the equipment and TVs that bring sporting events and entertainment into our homes. Manufacturing creates wealth and it is part of the bedrock of the economy. If it goes away, kiss the “recovery” goodbye.

Paul Dvorak


  1. Paul,

    Great journalism! These jobs are threatened for a host of reasons in the U.S. To me, the math is the most like culprit:

    1) Engineering market

    Machining vs. starting salaries for professional services, ie. engineering, etc. With engineering positions paying substantially more.

    2) Mass production vs. prototype focus in the U.S.

    Country is overwhelmingly prototype driven, thus unable to create substantive worker pay because prototype work is not high volume. This problem is within circuit board, chip, and other component verticals as well.

    3) Differentiation

    The country is better suited for component innovation vs. mass production. Alloys, design, lamination, etc. seem to be better protected component markets. Specialization tends to promote the stronger domestic salaries vis a vis job growth in the country.

  2. Last of the Mohicans says:

    I think what has really happened here is the current system of education has allowed vocational programs to be cut from the curriculum to allow for more important programs to prevail i.e.athletics. Until we change this mentality we will not recognize the students in the system that are academically challenged yet would excel in these positions as they see things mechanically. My own High School had a state of the art metals program and many students pursued the craft of being a machinist upon graduation. In response to the question regarding the youth of today far too many of them want something for nothing, they feel a sense of entitlement.The machinists that are mentioned in the article as reaching the age of retirement are considered old school, these are the men and women that would work 7 days a week if it was required to complete an objective and not complain about it, not so for the youth of today it seems to interfere with their lifestyle.

  3. There is a personal addendum to this article. My son, after not finding college to his liking, took a 4 month milling and turning class at local private tech school. He did well and finished near the top of his class, and for that, received three interview offers. He accepted one and will start soon at $18/hour and benefits.

    The comments he brought back from interviews is that each company says it is expanding. Manufacturing…expanding.

    So you have to ask: Why do such positions go begging for moderately skilled workers? Is there something wrong with American youth? Is it a culture that expects too much with little effort? What’s your theory?

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