According to the WIN Regional Report for the second quarter of 2013, CNC (Computer Numerical Control) Operators are among the top ten jobs that are in-demand for skilled trades in Southeast Michigan. This follows a nationwide trend that shows various skilled trades workers, not just CNC, are needed by U.S. manufacturers.
“High schools got rid of shop classes years ago” observes Gene Keyes, CNC Class Instructor with Schoolcraft College in Livonia and also a manufacturing business owner for the last 34 years, “so in the U.S., we haven’t kept a steady stream of new workers coming for manufacturers.”
Keyes predicted back in 2008 that manufacturing in Southeast Michigan would make a comeback from the recession. “Due to the economy, we saw a drastic drop in manufacturing in 2008, but I knew it would come back in a few years” said Keyes in a recent interview “Manufacturing is what drives any economy, China, Japan, Mexico and the U.S. too.”
For those who are not in advanced manufacturing, CNC is the process for milling raw materials in to a custom product. The machine is controlled by a computer that is programmed to meet the exact specifications of each individual project. The majority of advanced manufacturing businesses use some kind of CNC machine because they are so versatile. However useful the machine might be, they are worthless unless the company has someone who knows how to make the machine work. “I know of one business that purchased a used CNC machine, but had no one who could operate it” remembered Keyes, “so it sat on their shop floor unused for four years until they got rid of it because they needed the floor space. I wish they had come to me before they sold it. I could have helped them find someone to run it,” lamented Keyes.
The Southeast Michigan Community Alliance (SEMCA) operates the Michigan Works! programs in out-Wayne County and Monroe County. In June and November of last year, SEMCA held events at Henry Ford’s M-Tec Center in Dearborn to bring the local community colleges, along with businesses who were recruiting CNC operators and welders, together with people who have been unemployed long term. At those events, employers spoke about opportunities for good paying jobs with their companies. All the job seekers needed was training to be qualified for the jobs.
“Educational plans were discussed with attendees so that a clear training path could be laid out that would give these clients an idea of the training they would need to be qualified to begin a career in CNC or welding” said SEMCA Manager of Workforce Development, Susan Corey “Those events were a win-win for both our job seekers and our local businesses.” Corey went on to say.
From those events, an Introductory CNC course specifically designed for Michigan Works participants was created by both Henry Ford Community College and Schoolcraft College. “Our Michigan Works course at Schoolcraft was held in the morning, before my regular classes” said Keyes “It was 160 hours total. It was a very condensed curriculum that could get these people in the door, [classes were] 3 hours a day, 4 days a week.”
This innovative, inter-college program provided identical coursework, classroom and hands-on lab hours of training to select Michigan Works! participants. Students were introduced to fundamental skills in print reading, shop math and manual machining. In addition, CNC orientation and operator training included such topics as CNC/shop safety, and CNC basic programming and structure. Graduates received Certificates of Completion, and those with maximum attendance received college credit (at Schoolcraft College only).
“The CNC training program gives students an excellent foundation in manual machining as well as requisite entry level job skills in CNC technology. A student doing well in the program will have all the building blocks an employer is looking for in a CNC operator.” said Henry Ford CNC Course Instructor, Guy Pizzino, who has been with Henry Ford since the year 2000. “Most of the students taking the program were highly motivated and eager to learn a new job skill. The last CNC training program here at HFCC was 16 weeks long and was very intensive.” Pizzino added.
As with any profession, the more you know, the father you can go in your field. According to Keyes, CNC operators and programmers need to be life-long learners. “Currently, an entry level position in CNC will start out at $10 an hour” said Keyes, “but if that person is willing to keep learning, either on-the job, through an apprenticeship, or by taking more classes, they can earn a really good wage.” Keyes went on to comment, “Just like everything else, technology affects manufacturing, so it is always changing and people need to be willing to learn the new technology as it comes along. It requires higher skills than what manufacturing called for in the past. Companies look for the type of person who is motivated and willing to learn.”
“In the Michigan Works class they learned the basics, how a lathe works, how the raw materials respond to the CNC machine, the 25 basic G and M codes used in 90% of all programs, blue print reading and of course experience using the machines” said Keyes who believes hands-on-experience is essential to the success of the students. At both colleges, the students learn on actual CNC machines, lathes and the computers that program the CNC machines. “We are constantly matching what industry is working with.” continued Keyes.
“Henry Ford Community College is a ‘Haas Technical Center’ and is equipped with some of the latest Haas CNC machining centers” according to Pizzino. “The CNC training program gives students an excellent foundation in manual machining as well as requisite entry level job skills in CNC technology. A student doing well in the program will have all the building blocks an employer is looking for in a CNC operator.”
“Shops are looking for people who have experience” commented Keyes, “Businesses are calling me at least once a week saying ‘I need people right now!’ and I try to give them a good fit.” Keyes went on to say “Each shop is different and you need to find the right person who will fit in with their company culture. It’s also important to take the students around to local manufacturers so they can also see exactly what this job will be like. It’s not for everyone.” Keyes, who also taught a CNC class over the summer for high school students, says he takes all of his students on trips to local advanced manufacturing facilities in the region so they can see exactly what the job entails.
CNC was a right fit for Jon Zarwell who completed the Michigan Works training in May and found employment in Milford with Burners Inc. as a CNC Operator. “Class ended May 9th and I started [his new job] on May 13th! I like to work with my hands. My nickname is ‘McGyver’ so I knew I could do this.” Zarwell has tried many career paths in his adult life, including working as a commercial dairy delivery driver, in the service center of a car dealership, in sales and he even ran his own business for 15 years. “I was laid off from my last job in August of 2012 and heard about the CNC class from Bob McDonald at the Michigan Works Wayne Service Center. Bob was a big help,” said Zarwell “and dealing with them [Michigan Works] was fun!” While Michigan Works was helpful to Zarwell, he gives most of the credit for his success to Keyes at Schoolcraft. “A lot of where I am is because of Gene.” said Zarwell over the phone “He let us grow, had a great personality and was never condescending.”
Zarwell started out at his new job with an entry level wage of $10 an hour. “After a 60 day trial they gave me a $2 an hour raise.” said a grateful Zarwell. “It’s worked out well. The family that owns the company is great and I’m learning a lot from them.” Zarwell also appreciates the 40 hour work week. “Ever since my early 20’s I’ve worked 60-80 hours a week. Now I’m home for dinner every night, and I’m the one who’s cooking.”
Zarwell recommends the Schoolcraft CNC program to anyone who likes to work with their hands and has a bit of advice for others who find themselves laid off from their job, “Be open to change, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and try something new!”