Before the industry's 3- (some say 4-) year nosedive, many in the industry were bemoaning the shortage of qualified workers. As manufacturing hunkered down to weather the recession, this issue moved to the back burner. With a huge drop in manufacturing activity, finding new workers wasn't as important as trying to hang on to current employees.
I knock on wood as I write this, but it seems this spring marks a resurgence in metalworking manufacturing. Economic indicators still point to healthy trends for the industry. I prefer my own indicators, which are primarily based on direct contact with shops, vendors and builders.
My spring travel has been heavy, so I've had numerous chances to talk with real people doing real work in this industry. In the last couple of months, business seems to have picked up in a more sustained pattern. We've had hiccups during the last year—a good week was followed by two bad weeks then a good week—but it now seems that the spates of good weeks are coming closer together and lasting longer.
At a recent technical conference for the Precision Machined Products Association (PMPA) in St. Louis, the association, concerned about lighter than expected attendance, polled its members to ask why. The primary reason given was improved business conditions that made sparing workers to attend the conference too dear. These shops told the association that the business level has spiked to a point of 50- to 60-hour work weeks and the beginning of efforts to increase employment.
I went to an open house in New England for a master distributor who told me that for certain capital equipment coming out of Asia, deliveries are beginning to stretch out. Although still a factor, the price of machine tools is beginning to fall in the priority continuum in favor of delivery.
A machine tool builder told me that business has gotten so much better so quickly that it is asking some retirees to come in to help because of a shortage of skilled workers. Many of the people this builder was forced to let go during the recession have found work elsewhere.
This anecdotal evidence brings me to my point. Metalworking (fingers crossed) is poised to take off again after a long slumber. But some of the critical issues that bedeviled us before the recession have not disappeared. Primary among them is the shortage of workers with the proper skills to contribute to the modern machine shop. Intrinsic in this shortage is our old problem of educating technical workers for work as it exists today and tomorrow rather than as it existed yesterday. It's a problem that's not going away.