Thursday, January 5, 2017

Here are the reasons you can't find a CNC Programmer or Machinist.

I hear it all the time. "We can't find people to fill our positions..."

As a professional involved in Manufacturing for the past twenty years, I've noticed a few trends in the industry. One of these trends is the dwindling supply of qualified CNC Programmers, Setup Machinists, and Machine Operators. Since I've spent a lot of my time training people over the last 16 years, I thought I'd share some insights on what it takes to not only hire good people, but also retain them. (Which is arguably more important than the initial hiring.) In the interest of disclosure, this post is aimed at the Management of a manufacturing company. I'll be doing a follow-up post that will be directed at Machinists and Programmers that are looking for ways to advance their careers in their chosen industry. So if you're one of the latter group of folks, please be patient. I do think it is valuable to consider both sides of the coin, so you may gain some insight from this post as well...

What are you offering? Pay is important, but I'd argue that it is only a small part of the overall equation.

I find there to be a vast difference between different areas of the country, but also different mindsets of management and ownership with regards to how much various positions should earn. It would be easy for me to say "just pay people more...", but that of course is an easy answer to give. One of the issues that I find most curious, is the attitude I've encountered at numerous shops that an "Operator" isn't worth very much. While this can be attributed to a lack of skill on the part of a new hire, it also says a lot about the culture of the company, and the lack of opportunity for advancement for many of the young people starting out in our industry. Say what you will about Unions, but the reason many of them started was to provide a framework for advancement, and to ensure that people earned a living wage. It also brought about things like the 40-hour work week. (The Politics of the 20th Century and the roots of the Industrial Revolution are beyond the scope of this post. Please, let's not turn the comment section into a "They took our jobs" rant, or a discussion of US Trade Policies. I'm trying to get Owners and Management to think about the overall picture of hiring and retention of good quality people.)

Of course pay is important, so let's start with that.

I hear many shop owners and managers say "well, this is all we can afford to pay for a starting wage". Why? Is is due to your culture (don't want to upset existing employees?), or just the bottom line? I understand the pressures of price and the value proposition of manufacturing. I also see a lot of shops that are stuck in the 80's or 90's mentality, and have refused to update their technology, or buy new machinery. Even worse, many of them do buy new machines, but let their operators dictate how efficient those machines are being run. From turning down the feed rates, or simply setting the Rapid Override at 10-25%, these attitudes (or in some cases pure laziness) are hamstringing your company. How many hours does your spindle run per shift? And is the actual "running" of that machine at maximum efficiency?
I deal with a lot of shops where the planners and management are expecting 70% spindle utilization, but are maybe getting half that, if they are lucky. Obviously there is a major disconnect somewhere. If that spindle was cutting twice as many chips per hour, or you were shipping twice as many parts, could you afford to pay your people more? Of course you could. And the offset in higher wages would be more than made up in higher overall profits for your company. This is what makes Cell Systems (that are properly managed) so attractive. It is possible to get 90% spindle utilization (or more) out of a well run system. My friend Jason Vice ran a cell system for years, and clocked 96% spindle utilization on a regular basis. (The 4% was weekly scheduled maintenance, and is absolutely essential.) That machine was only down 4 hours per week. There are 168 hours in a week (simple math, I know), but the rest of the time, that spindle was cutting chips, 24-7. (Pallet changes notwithstanding.) So what does that kind of efficiency bring? That Cell System paid the entire shop's payroll on a weekly basis. For around 20 Machinists. That's saying something. When Jason left, their spindle utilization dropped by 20-30% on a weekly basis, almost instantly. Even though Jason stayed on to help train the new cell operators. (Plus, it took 3 guys to do the work that he was doing by himself.) How much money was lost because the owner didn't want to give a couple dollar an hour raise?
Of course, getting to the point where a cell runs at that kind of efficiency requires knowledgeable, skilled people, and a willingness to invest in technology. If you are looking for someone to show you how to setup, program, and schedule a Cell System, Jason is the man. Small plug:
So yes, pay is important. It is after all, a person's (and potentially their family's), livelihood. But that pay should also reflect the skill level of the person you are hiring. There is nothing wrong with asking someone at a high level of skill to prove their worth. But there should still be a path for growth for that person. Don't expect that as a high level employee gets hired, that their wages will remain static. Especially if they are investing their own time and money in learning new skills, or making you more money. Set goals for them, or involve them in the process of setting goals for wage growth. You would be amazed what an extra dollar or three per hour will gain you in loyalty.

The same thoughts should apply to the newest employees you hire.

How many times have you experienced churn at your shop? You bring a guy or gal in at the bottom, then invest time and money into integrating them into your culture, just to see them leave for a few more dollars an hour? Frustrating right? Here are the reasons I see this happen, from an employee's perspective:
If your starting wage is really low, there there is ample reason for your employees to look elsewhere. Periodically you should look at the starting wages for new hires and journeymen in your area, and see if you are below, at, or above the local market.
That said, money is not the most critical factor for lower-level employees. Opportunity for growth, and being praised for doing a good job are far more important. A sincere "Good job!" goes a long way towards keeping the good employees around. I have been in many shops that ruled their workforce by threat of CAM. (Corrective Action Memo) Rather than investing in their shop's culture, and making sure that all their employees had the resources to do their job well, the employees lived in fear of screwing up and being yelled at. That is not a recipe for success. If someone is working harder than everyone else, or doing an especially good job, you can reward them just by telling them what a great job they are doing. Besides praise (which is key in my opinion), consider a reward system like small cash-based awards for the people that make great suggestions, or improve shop processes. At one of my first jobs, I suggested some improvements that cut nine minutes off a 45 minute machine cycle. The owner came up to me a week later, and sincerely thanked me, and then handed me a $50 dollar bill. I also got a dollar an hour raise the following month. That $50 was nothing to him, but it meant an awful lot to me. Far more meaningful though was the praise I received.
What is the wage ceiling at your shop, and how does a junior operator get up to that level? How many years should it take? Or does it depend on the level of skill and work ethic that employee brings to the table? If there is no more opportunity for advancement, be it learning new skills or earning more money, then you risk losing that employee. What other opportunities are available for them to grow? Does your company pay for training or college? What about more responsibilities? Almost immediately when I started as a machine operator working in Aerospace, I had a desire to get into the programming office as a CNC Programmer. I left that company after a year and a half, once I realized that it would have taken me 15+ years to get an opportunity at programming in that company's culture. Evolve your culture, or let it choke your productivity. The choice is yours.

Technology is our future. But you must train your people to take advantage of it...

Are you investing in the technology to remain competitive, and training the skills to take advantage of the new machines and controls? Automation is what will make you competitive in today's market. We as a country cannot compete with Chinese or Indian wages. But through buying state-of-the-art machines and software, we don't have too. On the flip side of that coin though, the machine shop model of "Operators" doesn't work. Just paying someone $12 bucks an hour to load parts, deburr, and push a button is going by the wayside. In place of that model, Operators are increasingly becoming hi-tech workers. The lines are being blurred between operating a machine, and knowing how to optimize the increasingly complex machines that make you competitive. Are you trying out new cutting tools? If you are running modern cutting tools, with modern software, then you should be cutting Titanium at 100 inches per minute, and Aluminum at 600-1000 IPM. You can't make money with a million dollar machine if the operator is turning down the feed rate knob.
That means that you've got to have the software that support newer High Speed and High Efficiency Machining strategies. Mastercam has made some huge strides in this arena over the last 10 years. There are other software packages that are also including some HSM strategies, but Mastercam seems to be on the forefront of developing the technology, and making it accessible to the average programmer. Other companies like Celerative Technologies (Makers of Volumill) offer a plug-in for many of the popular CAM programs on the market. For a small investment, it is possible to stick with your current CAM system, and yet add new HSM capabilities. HSMWorks has incorporated that strategy into the name of their product, and they also do a decent job of removing metal quickly.
It can be scary to program a job at 2-5 times the feed rates you are used to running. Scary for the Operator, scary for the Programmer, and scary for the Owner or Manager. But that shouldn't stop you from trying. The same can be said for incorporating robots into your operations. As the price of robots come down, and the technology becomes more accessible, the benefits for incorporating them into your shop become ever more apparent. As much as people need jobs, nobody enjoys repetitive monotony. Doing the same thing, over and over, day in, day out, gets old. So the idea that one higher-skilled employee can tend two, three, or ten machines that are loaded by robots becomes more feasible. That said, to get there, you'll have to invest in the capital expenses, but also in the employees that will become a mixture of Machine Operator and Engineer.
In addition to the newer machines and software that is needed, you should also think about retiring old machines when the value in them has been used up. An old machine, with an old control, is an anchor around your neck. I've heard so many times "but those machines are paid off. Why would I want to get rid of them?". Because the new machine you could put in its place would net you 10 times the productivity. It might take some painful months of growth, or a big loan from the bank to get there, but I promise if you don't the shop owner down the street will. And you'll be left shutting the doors, and calling the auctioneer.
"It is not necessary to change. Survival isn't mandatory."  -W. Edward Deming
Once you've made the decision to invest in new software or machines, you need to train your employees to take advantage of the new capabilities. Look to the Machine Tool Builder, the Software Developer, or a 3rd party consultant to get your employees up to speed. From formal classes to seminars, webinars to online courses, there are resources available to take advantage of these new tools. Invest in your productivity and your people, to see your profits soar. Look at your culture, make sure that your people are treated well and have opportunity for growth. You'll be glad you did.

By,  Colin Gilchrist

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